Sunday, August 4, 2013

Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)
Biography, Documentary, Music, 86 minutes
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

I had read so many good things about Searching for Sugar Man, but something stopped me from watching it until yesterday. I was afraid that it just wouldn't be my kind of thing. Would I like the music? Probably not. Would I care about a musician that I had never previously heard of? Doubtful. Furthermore, only a select few documentaries have captured my imagination to the point where I would watch them more than once.

I'm happy to report that all of my doubts were quickly erased within the first few minutes.

Sixto Rodriguez was born in Detroit in 1942, and made two albums in the 1970s. The first, Cold Fact, was released in 1970, and Coming from Reality followed in 1971.

His singing style was raw, along the lines of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Like both of those artists, the lyrics carry a lot of meaning, and it's obvious that Rodriguez wrote songs that were both personal and authentic. His US sales were almost non-existent, and, like me, most people weren't aware that he existed before this documentary was put together.

Here are a few of his lyrics:

Climb Up on My Music
Have you ever had a fever
From a bitter-sweet refrain
Have you ever kissed the sunshine
Walked between the rain
Well, just climb up on my music
And my songs will set you free
Well, just climb up on my music
And from there jump off with me

I'll Slip Away
And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I'll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then I'll go mend all my shattered dreams
Maybe today, yeah I'll slip away

This is Not a Song, It's an Outburst: Or, The Anti-Establishment Blues

The mayor hides the crime rate
Council woman hesitates
Public gets irate but forget the vote date
Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it's raining
Everyone's protesting, boyfriend keeps suggesting
You're not like all of the rest

Garbage ain't collected, women ain't protected
Politicians using people, they've been abusing
The mafia's getting bigger, like pollution in the river
And you tell me that this is where it's at

Woke up this morning with an ache in my head
I splashed on my clothes as I spilled out of bed
I opened the window to listen to the news
But all I heard was the Establishment's Blues

Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring
Divorce the only answer, smoking causes cancer
This system's gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune
And that's a concrete cold fact

The pope digs population, freedom from taxation
Teeny Bops are up tight, drinking at a stoplight
Miniskirt is flirting, I can't stop so I'm hurting
Spinster sells her hopeless chest

Adultery plays the kitchen, bigot cops non-fiction
The little man gets shafted, sons and monies drafted
Living by a time piece, new war in the far east
Can you pass the Rorschach test?

It's a hassle it's an educated guess
Well, frankly I couldn't care less

A couple of early interviews in the film report that Rodriguez committed suicide. One account states that he set himself on fire on stage, while another claims that he shot himself after his tiny audience ridiculed his performance. But this is not a sad tale; it's actually extremely uplifting. Please trust me on this.

The film explains that Rodriguez was a huge success in South Africa, with a bigger following than Elvis or The Rolling Stones. He was completely unaware of this at the time, and never saw any of the money. His records were initially unavailable, but word spread after bootleg copies were distributed among fans. When the albums were finally released, more than half a million copies were sold. Imagine having all that success without being aware of it. It almost sounds like a hoax or a spoof documentary, doesn't it?

In South Africa, people adopted some of the songs and made them part of the anti-apartheid movement. One fan decided to find out the truth about this mysterious man, and made it his mission to discover exactly what happened. He began by tracking where the royalties went, and also visited places mentioned in the songs. While on the verge of abandoning his search, a blog post gave him new hope and a fresh lead. I don't want to reveal what he ultimately found, because you deserve to find out for yourself if you don't already know how the story ends.

This is a film for music fans, and for anyone who enjoys uplifting stories. I know that I haven't told you why you need to see Searching for Sugar Man, but you'll be glad you did if you do decide to check it out. It may be the best documentary I have ever seen, and I am already thinking about watching it again.

It's not essential to view the film in high definition as much of the 1970s footage is low quality, but the recent interviews do benefit from the Blu-ray treatment, as does the sound quality.

Overall score 4.5/5

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  1. I didn't give it such a high rating as you. For me, the unanimous praise of Rodriguez is very one-sided, but it was an uplifting and enjoyable documentary. Mostly for introducing me to his music. The best kept secret of the 70s is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

    1. Yeah, it's good to have some positive stories for a change.