Review: SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN

By Laurie Coker

Rating: B

Legends made, legends lost – Searching for Sugar Man speaks of a legend found. Sixto Rodriquez of Detroit played music in the 70’s, music of protest, music like Dylan’s, music with heart and soul and a story to tell. He recorded two albums to critical acclaim, but then, in spite being sign by a big record label, album sales didn’t reflect the reviews. Sixto took a job as a laborer and melted into obscurity, until that is two men went searching for the truth behind the legend – a legend that took root a few years later and thousands of miles from Detroit in the country of South Africa.

Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul’s telling focuses on Rodriguez’s immense popularity in South Africa, revealing his tale through record store owner Steve “Sugar” Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew, a pair prominent in putting together Rodriguez’ story. While his music was hugely popular in South Africa, a country ravaged by the effects of apartheid, Rodriquez basically disappeared from the music scene. His music became part of South Africa’s voice, but even there, no one knew anything about Rodriguez himself, and rumors ran rampant – the most prominent being suicide, either by self-inflected gunshot or by dousing himself in gasoline and lighting himself on fire.

I saw the film at this year’s SXSW and had the privilege to go to a screening with Rodriquez in attendance. He, now seventy-years-old, moved slowly across the stage, struggling under the weight of years of physical labor. This man, who used to play with his back to his audience, stood in awe of the limelight in which he now stood. He seemed humbly and honestly taken aback by all the attention. While his albums sold in South African and royalty checks sent to his agent, Sixto, completely unaware, earned a hard day’s wage and raised a family in anonymity in Michigan. It wasn’t until someone when looking that he or his family knew of his notoriety in a country so far away.

What impressed me most about the man and the movie lies in the fact that Rodriquez is so unassuming, and that even in light of his obvious popularity in South Africa and having played to large audiences there, he seems unaffected.  In Searching for Sugar Man, we never actually meet Rodriquez until late in the film, but his music is played throughout, and like a needle and thread his soulful songs pull the story together and tightly bind audiences to Rodriquez’ journey.

Searching for Sugar Man, a title which comes from one of Rodriquez’s songs, not only shares his tale, but shares his music as well and we are the luckier for it. Little is available about Rodriquez on the internet and Segerman’s years ago put up a site which received one comment – not from the man, but from someone with information about him. Leading to a documentary, which could have easily gone just as unnoticed as the man himself, but luckily it’s finding its way.

I cannot reveal the ending, nor should I say much more about the story, but I will assert that what happens in the life of Sixto Rodriquez is nothing short of amazing and miraculous, especially in light of time frame – from musical inception to near fame and the hard road in between. I am putting a B in my grade book, not higher because of the fact that too much is revealed in the first act, taking any potential momentum out of the rest,  causing some aspects to drag, saved mainly by Rodriquez’s backdrop of melodies.

 

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