Movie Review: Searching for Sugar Man

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, circa 1970

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

What happens when a singer/songwriter, living in relative obscurity for over forty years, discovers that he was an overnight sensation, his records having turned platinum … decades ago? In this instance, given the musician’s zen-like acceptance of life as it happens … nothing. Oh, he may do a few concerts to sell-out crowds of thousands in South Africa – where he’s as beloved in that country as Elvis Presley is in America – but as Sixto Diaz Rodriguez says about his longtime day job as a construction laborer in Detroit, “Well, you never throw away your work clothes.”

Like Rodriguez’ many different tunes, Searching for Sugar Man looks at multiple scenarios. Other than the initial story of the hunt for the musician in the late ’90s by two determined fans (record store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom), first-time feature documentarian Malik Bendjelloul examines the effect of Rodriguez’ music in the early ’70s on the young liberal populace of South Africa, who were inspired by the singer/songwriter’s exhortations to question authority. And they did just that, protesting the South African government’s policy of apartheid. Per Segerman, “To many of us South Africans, he was the soundtrack to our lives.” While this kind of high-profile celebrity disappearance would never happen in our media-savvy age, between South Africa’s isolation as well as Rodriguez’ – who didn’t own a telephone – it’s an understandable anomaly. What can’t be explained, however, is how a record company allegedly never tracked profits from the two albums that went platinum (1970′s “Cold Fact” and 1971′s “Coming From Reality” ), and Rodriguez’ estate never saw a dime. Supposedly, there will now be some royalties for the musician going forward.

And just who is this musical prophet of the counterculture era? Born in 1942, the sixth son (hence the name “Sixto) of Mexican immigrants, Detroit’s “inner-city poet” captured the attention of two record producers who saw him perform in the late ’60s, with his back to the crowd, at a no-frills nightclub called The Sewer. With incisive lyrics that brought to mind the sensibilities of a Bob Dylan, and a voice sounding like a mix between Cat Stevens and Donovan, Rodriguez got himself a record deal. But due to the fact that neither record sold, followed by his supposed gruesome suicide onstage (by either self-immolation or a gunshot to the head), Rodriguez was soon forgotten. Except that the albums had been bootlegged to South Africa in the ’70s … and in a non-internet world, the very-much-alive Rodriguez was the last to find out about his international acclaim some 8,000 miles away.

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez

Through the film’s multiple interviews with Rodriguez’ three daughters, his acquaintances and his initial record producers, we get a sense of the artist as a soft-spoken loner, interpreting the world he sees through his dark sunglasses, walking the streets cloaked in black. (A few graphic renderings of the young man, as imagined by filmmaker Bendjelloul, are highly effective, adding an additional creative note into the mix.) Even when he’s finally located (still living in the same Detroit house in which he’d raised his family), and flown to Cape Town in 1998 for his first stage appearance in decades, he gives the impression of a humble, self-effacing figure. Standing in front of a screaming, sell-out crowd of 5,000, he grins, taking it all in, before shyly saying, “Thanks for keeping me alive.”

As for Swedish music documentarian Bendjelloul, though he’d worked solely in television, when he traveled to South Africa in 2006 and heard about Rodriguez, he felt compelled to turn the story into a feature. Working with Swedish cinematographer Camilla Skagerström, he shot with both a Sony-EX1 and, for grit, a Super 8 camera. Eventually running out of funds, he had to rely on the Super 8 app on his iPhone which, he states, was almost as good as the camera itself. Though the filmmaker had planned on committing a year to the project, lack of funds grounded the film for a total of four. Finally ready for release in 2012, Searching for Sugar Man debuted at Sundance – winning the World Cinema Audience Award and World Cinema Special Jury Prize – before moving on to rave reviews at the Tribeca and L.A. Film Fests. While the making of the film didn’t take nearly as long as the resurgence of the musician himself, Bendjelloul’s journey echoes yet one more tale of dogged commitment. That no matter how long and hard the road may be, the quixotic attempt to pursue the goal still matters.

It’s a thoughtful film, respectful, informative and inspiring – though the lack of examination into Rodriguez is somewhat maddening. How is it that he’s living as simply now as he has for decades? That he’s not riding high on this long-overdue confluence of art, fame and riches? Isn’t this a reversal of the great American dream?

But maybe Bendjelloul purposely keeps us at an arm’s length. Maybe that’s the point … we don’t own the celebrity and are not entitled to peek inside. We can only appreciate what the artist decides to share with us. And no more. Hell, we finally have the music … shouldn’t that be enough?

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Rating on a scale of 5 sweet smells of success: 4

Release date: July 27, 2012 (ltd.)
Written, Edited and Directed by: Malik Bendjelloul
Featuring: Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, Malik Bendjelloul, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, Craig Bartholomew
Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 86 minutes

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 450+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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