Searching for Sugar Man (2012) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : Searching for a forgotten musician

Some people said life is third-rated novel, but we hear about incredible life stories stranger than fiction from time to time, and the story told in “Searching for Sugar Man” is such a case. This documentary introduces us one musician too good to be forgotten, and it tells us how he came to find his audiences at the place he or others around him had never imagined.

The musician in question is Sixto Rodriguez, who was discovered by Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey at one bar in Detroit around the late 1960s. Theordore and Coffey were experienced music producers who worked with many famous musicians including Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, and they quickly recognized Rodriguez’s talent. Although Rodriquez was virtually unknown at that time with no album(he only recorded one single “I’ll Slip Away” in 1967), they got Rodriguez signed to Sussex Records, and the two albums, “Cold Fact” and “Coming From Reality”, were released in 1970 and 1971, respectively.

That sounds like a successful debut, but it wasn’t. Both albums were commercial failures in spite of good reviews, and, according to Clarence Avant, the owner of Sussex Records at that time, only 6 copies were sold in case of one of them(two copies were bought by Avant’s wife and daughter). Several songs written by Rodriguez are introduced in the documentary, and I can agree with the interviewees that he could have been as successful as Bob Dylan if he had been luckier. More than 40 years have passed, but they are still good songs to listen to.

After few more trials without much success, Rodriguez descended into obscurity, without knowing that he actually got the audiences on the other side of the Earth. Somehow his albums were flowed to South Africa, and they became very popular among the people rebelling against the South African government and its unjust Apartheid policy. Of course, the South African government banned Rodriguez’s songs, but that only increased their popularity among people(a note to the authorities: if you ban book or music or other art forms, that only increased curiosity and popularity). Bootlegs copies went around, and Rodriguez’s songs like “Establishment Blues” came to represent the spirit of the anti-apartheid movement, and many South African musicians including Willem Moller were immensely influenced by Rodriguez.

Rodriguez’s albums were officially released on CD in South Africa during the early 1990s, and Rodriguez became as popular as, say, Elvis Presley while more than 500,000 copies were sold. However, the fans and admirers in South Africa, including a passionate record shop owner Stephen Segerman and a journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, still did not know anything about Rodriguez himself or what happened to him. There had been many weird rumors about his death(one rumor said he committed suicide during his last concert), but nobody exactly knew how Rodriguez lived after his two albums were released.

The first half of the documentary revolves around this interesting mystery and how Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom tried to solve this as much as they could during that time. Thanks to the timely technology advancement in Internet, Segerman made a website for receiving useful information about Rodriguez from anyone around the world, but it seemed not many people knew about him outside South Africa. Bartholomew-Strydom also tracked down the royalties of the albums, but they only found that the royalties did not go to Rodriguez but to the record company holding the copyrights of the albums. They had Rodriguez’s photos in his albums, but they were not much of help because he usually wore sunglasses.

And then they received certain crucial information through the website in 1997. Now, for not spoiling your precious entertainment with this wonderful documentary, I think I must not tell too much about where their search was led to, except that a) they came to know more about Rodriguez than they hoped, and b) it was a lot more than they had ever imagined. As we learn more about him through this search process and accompanying talking-head interviews with the people who knew him, Rodriguez comes to us as a wise, humble, and admirable human being who was not daunted by the downturn in his life although it seemed his career was almost finished.

The documentary also has the other interesting people in its story. I especially like the sincere and passionate enthusiasm of Stephen Segerman, whose nickname ‘Sugarman’ is derived from none other than Rodriguez’s song “Sugar Man”, and he has an amusing scene on how he inferred the important clues about Rodriguez through the analysis of his songs. I and the other audiences in the screening room had some giggles during the moment when Clarence Avant gets cranky as the interview becomes unpleasant to him, and that was just one of many delightful moments during the screening on this afternoon.

The director Malik Bendjelloul, who came to know about Rodriguez through Segerman in 2006, does an excellent job of presenting his story. Rodriguez’s songs are effectively used along with the archival footage and the beautiful scenes made for the documentary, and we become absorbed in a miraculous human drama as we are drawn to its compelling ‘detective story’, and it eventually arrives at a very touching moment its subject deserves. This is indeed a powerful documentary you should not miss.

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1 Response to Searching for Sugar Man (2012) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : Searching for a forgotten musician

  1. Greg says:

    Without giving too much away, the climax of this movie is incredible. If I wrote a novel with the same story line, it wouldn’t be believable. Truly one of the greatest movies of the year, and probably my second favorite doc of the year (behind the excellent How to Survive a Plague).

    SC: I have heard good words about “How to Survive a Plague”, and I’m looking forward to watching it. Thanks for your comment, Greg.

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