Searching for Sugarman: Tribute to an Overlooked Talent
He could have been the next Bob Dylan; in South Africa, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Australia, he was even bigger than Elvis. His music was loved by the critics but ignored by audiences, and after two albums – titled Cold Fact and Coming From Reality – fell on deaf ears in the US, and his efforts proved commercially fruitless, the Detroit street-poet instantaneously fell from the face of the earth, vanishing into complete obscurity.
So, whatever happened to the talented and disturbingly underrated Detroit-born 70’s soul-folk musician, Sixto Diaz Rodriguez? That’s a question first-time Swedish filmmaker, Malik Bendjelloul, seeks answers to in one of the most compelling and touching music documentaries of the past decade.
Ingeniously titled, Searching for Sugar Man, the story takes us to South Africa where we learn that while Rodriguez never managed to find the artistic and marketable success in the US, his music – thanks to the bootlegging of his first album, Cold Fact – ended up playing a significant role in the apartheid-era. Rodriguez became the voice of the people despite governmental efforts to censor his record’s ‘offending’ tracks; and for many years, he never even knew it.
With only a few pictures of Rodriguez available as proof that he really does exist, his devoted fans never really knew much about their beloved idol. Bizarre rumours surfaced alleging that he had committed suicide onstage during one of his failed performances, either by shooting himself or by setting himself on fire.
Rodriguez’s legacy never died, even after the struggling apartheid years were long over. Often referred to as the ‘prophet of the people’, devoted fans, Segerman and Strydom, set out to undertake research, only to discover that their search only marked the beginning of something greater than initially imagined.
Well paced and cinematically striking, the film doesn’t fall back on simple on-camera interviews and narration, but rather, Bendjelloul adds a sense of intrigue and beauty using an evidently thought-out structure to his storytelling. Dazzling shots of Cape Town’s skyline and striking animatics of Rodriguez walking the streets of his hometown play a big part in the story development; as a result there isn’t one dull moment.
Rodriguez’s songs play throughout the entire film and there is no denying the fact that this man – who was constantly compared to the likes of Dylan and Donovan – was unjustly disregarded. His soulful tracks and profound lyrics score the film and even though there is a sense of melancholy, the story still manages to find room for the positive, ultimately proving that it’s never too late to fulfil your dreams.
Searching for Sugar Man is a truly fine documentary and a significant work of art. Although we would have liked to see a little bit more of the live-concert footage, and perhaps gotten to know a little bit more about what’s hiding beneath the dark mysterious exterior, Searching for Sugar Man is still highly insightful and thoroughly entertaining.