Searching for Sugar Man, 2012.
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul.
Starring Rodriguez, Steve Segerman and Dennis Coffey.
A documentary looking for the elusive and mysterious 70s singer/songwriter Rodriguez.
Rodriguez is an enigma. He was better than Bob Dylan, but didn’t sell. His albums sit alongside Abby Road and Bridge Over Troubled Water in fans’ record collections, but hardly anyone’s ever heard of him. He blew his brains out onstage. He set himself on fire at a gig. He overdosed on drugs. He’s the ‘Sugar Man’ the documentary seeks.
Tales of his death bump into and contradict each other throughout the film. The opening scene has Sugar, a South African record shop owner, regaling the self-immolation rumour of Rodriguez’s death. Other reasons and situations are given for his passing, but there is one aspect on which the talking heads all agree – Rodriguez is dead.
But when did death ever stop a person becoming famous?
The details are fuzzy – a friend of a friend of a friend; some guy’s girlfriend; a vinyl washing up at Cape Point – but somehow someone introduced Rodriguez to South Africa. And despite being a manual labourer from Detroit, he became as big as Elvis Presley amongst the white, liberal middle class of the Apartheid suffering country.
His songs were peppered with revolution, which got them promptly banned by the 70s censorship board. The music sounds like pretty inoffensive stuff unless you listen to the lyrics. Titles like This Is Not A Song, It’s An Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues does little to endear itself to oppressive governments. It explains the protesting slant of Rodriguez’s supposed causes of death
But the record still spread. While the South Africans could read about other American musicians, for Rodriguez they had nothing. He was an unknown in every other country. A pair of dark shades constantly masked his face in album artwork. He was a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which to project a revolutionary spirit.
The documentary enhances Rodriguez’s mystique. Old photographs are of a man in shadow, or standing far away in the frame. Sketches are drawn from old record producers who worked with him, or Detroit bricklayers with whom he’d clocked in. The camera becomes an active eye, looking at cities from above, tracking along streets as though its involved in the search, too.
Unfortunately, the documentary takes its quest a little too ‘Paxman’. The majority is naturalistic, allowing the talking heads to speak uninhibited and narrate the stock footage, without interrupting questions. Occasionally, however, the director, Malik Bendjelloul, inquires from behind the camera. His voice disrupts the flow, and it sounds too clear, as though added in post-production. But this is the film’s only flaw.
Searching for Sugar Man has an enchanting idea at its core, that a work of art can find deep significance somewhere entirely different to its original conditions. There are echoes of the Robert Johnson myth, the blues guitar player who sold his soul to the Devil – a character borrowed by the Coens in O Brother, Where Art Thou? He, too, was a nobody during his time. It was only years later, after a recording had made its way around America, that his music found fame. But he was long dead, having been poisoned by a lover’s jealous husband. Or drunk into the gutter. Or taken by the Devil to repay a debt.
Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if the posthumous icons caught a break once in a while?
Searching For Sugar Man is out on DVD and Blu-Ray today.
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★
Oliver Davis (@OliDavis)