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Film Review: Searching for Sugar Man


Guitarist Sixto Rodriguez makes two records in 1970 and 1971 in Detroit.  They don’t sell at all.  Not sell well, mind you, they don’t sell at all.  The comic estimate we hear is “six”, but overall perhaps as few as 75 to 100 sold.  This happens all the time, but the music from those albums, “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality”, is extremely good. Like, Beatles good.

 

Rodriguez’ music plays throughout the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man, the title taken from a song from “Cold Fact”.  Rodriguez’s lyrics and voice stand out while we see images of Rodriguez’s Detroit and Cape Town, South Africa.

 

Yes, South Africa – that’s the setting for most of the film.  After “Coming from Reality” bombed, Rodriguez quit making music and became a construction worker and father.  However, at least one record (and perhaps just one copy) came to South Africa in the mid-1970’s. Through word of mouth, Rodriguez’s music spread among South Africa’s youth. He became South Africa’s most popular musician. He also became the music of growing resistance by white youth against apartheid and an increasingly coercive government.

 

Living in Detroit and pulling down houses, Rodriguez had no idea.  Living isolated by international sanctions from their policy of apartheid, the South Africans believed he was dead.  As apartheid ended, one music journalist basically decided to investigate how Rodriguez died.  His great clue?  A mysterious city...Dearborn, Michigan.

 

Imagine if America realized that Hendrix had been quietly living in Mali all these years, and was now flying in for a summer tour.

 

It’s easy to get attached to a story like this.  The mystery. The search. The man who discovers thirty-five years later that he is, in fact, a rock god on the other side of the earth. The meeting of musician with his devoted fans.

 

However, Searching for Sugar Man excels through quality production. The camera work is fabulous.  Even parts of Detroit look good.  Animation fills in certain parts of the story (Rodriguez’s life in Detroit; his first arrival in South Africa in 1997) so well you miss it when we finally hit the present day. 

 

Director Malik Bendjelloul interviews all the major players in the Rodriguez’s money trail and gets enough that we can piece together one part of this puzzle.  His interview with record exec Clarence Avant shows pretty clearly what happen to Rodriguez’s share of the royalty money. Avant appears as shrewd, funny, utterly charming while casually pointing the finger back at the series of South African record labels, who kind-of credibly insist all the appropriate funds were sent to Avant. Avant then asks the director, “Are you looking for Rodriguez or his money?”

 

To this viewer Avant had asked something I suddenly wasn’t sure about. I realized the answer would define what kind of film I was watching. Smart films find those moments of sudden doubt or insight and put them on screen. Sugarman is filled with interesting people providing exactly those kinds of moments. The ones where you go, “Wow, I get it now.” or “I can see that happening.”

 

If there’s a criticism, it’s the film’s too short.  It flies by at nearly 88 minutes (unlike, say, the horrid Pacino vehicle from a few years ago).  There still appears to be some story to tell, namely, who is this guy Sixto Rodriguez after all? We certainly see lots of his actual person in the film.  His three daughters rave about what a great person their Dad is.  We watch him heat his bedroom with a wood stove.  Rodriguez is as unlike Steven Tyler, to name one example of an over-exposed star, as can be imagined.  Sheltered from view behind large, late-Elvis-like sunglasses, we get short, honest answers to basic questions, and lots of serene smiling.  He’s the shaman rock god, but enjoyable and unpretentious, unlike, say, Neil Young.

 

But no one is this good; there has to be more to know.  Perhaps that’s too much to ask of Rodriguez’s South African fans at this point.  Their hero is alive, he flies over and plays shows for them, and they have this great film to watch.

 

Searching for Sugar Man plays Wednesday (6-25) and Thursday (6-26) at Indywood (628 Elysian Fields Ave.). Check their website for showtimes.




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Contributors

Renard Boissiere, Evan Z.E. Hammond, Naimonu James, Wilson Koewing, J.A. Lloyd, Nina Luckman, Dead Huey Long, Alexis Manrodt, Joseph Santiago, Andrew Smith, Cynthia Via, Austin Yde

Photographers


Art Director

Michael Weber, B.A.

Editor


Listings Editor

Linzi Falk

Editor Emeritus

Alexis Manrodt


B. E. Mintz


Stephen Babcock

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