Movie directed by Malik Bendjelloul
It’s been a long time since I’ve walked out of a movie feeling as invigorated and uplifted as I did after seeing “Searching for Sugar Man.” Unfortunately, I can’t fully tell you why without running the risk of ruining the experience for you.
I knew next to nothing about this outstanding documentary and haven’t stopped thinking about it since. Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul follows South African indie record store owner, Stephen Segerman (nicknamed “Sugar” after Rodriguez’s song, “Sugar Man”) on his dogged quest to find Sixto Rodriguez, an astonishingly talented 70s folk musician from Detroit who tanked in America but became one of the most revered political musical voices in Apartheid-era South Africa.
We watch as the record producers who discovered Rodriguez in a dive bar get misty-eyed as they listen to his pure voice and pointed lyrics while wondering why his albums never sold in America. His voice is captivating; a cross between Bob Dylan and Jose Feliciano, his working class words and worries a snapshot of the country’s hard times. After being signed to a record label and being woefully under-marketed, the label drops him and he quietly resumes his life as a construction and demolition worker.
At the same time, it is believed that one of the handful of Americans who bought his first record “Cold Fact,” brought a copy with them on a visit to South Africa where it was bootlegged, played at parties, and became an integral part of every young person’s record collection. Rodriguez became THE voice of the anti-Apartheid movement despite the government’s ardent attempts at censorship. There, he was bigger than the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, or even Elvis.
It was a widely held belief that Rodriguez, depressed and hopeless, killed himself onstage, either by self-immolation or a self-inflicted gunshot wound. There was no reason to believe otherwise, and without the Internet and the overarching strictures on personal freedom, the South Africans accepted this at face value.
But, where did the royalties go from the sales of hundreds of thousands of records in South Africa? When an investigative journalist hooks up with Segerman to track down that one answer the trail twists and turns and leads to the pot at the end of the rainbow.
In the end the film focuses on a man with a rare humility and the fans who revere his brilliance, both musically and as a voice of a generation. It is a remarkable story of redemption and priorities, payoff and legacy, and the admirable choices of a man who deserved a lot more attention in his homeland than he received. It appears to be payback time for Sixto Rodriguez.