The most striking thing of the many striking things in Searching for Sugar Man is the personality of Rodriguez himself. Unspoiled, not bitter, undimmed perceptions, and the continued passion for his craft all make a huge imprint on the viewer. And of course, it is all the more impressive because he spent 30 years in demolition and cleanup instead of filling our minds and souls with his remarkable music. The story is too crazy to be made up; no one would see it if it were a piece of fiction, unless it was written by Kurt Vonnegut or Douglas Adams. But it is a true story, a gripping story, and a rewarding story. The story of a wonderful human being and a remarkable father. A feel good documentary which alone makes it a near impossibility. There is only one qualifier you will notice again and again in reference to Searching for Sugar Man: must see.
"Searching for Sugar Man" (2012 release; 85 min.) brings the unlikely but true story of how, Rodriguez, an obscure American musician who released 2 never-heard albums in the early 1970s became a music sensation in South Africa. As a music nerd, this became even more compelling as I will admit I had never heard of Rodriguez before.
The first half of the movie centers around the efforts of two South African men in the music business, both fan of and curious about the mysterious Rodriguez to simply find out more about this guy. The movie then traces the beginnings of Rodriguez in the late 60s in Detroit (with archive footage of the city at that time, not much better than it is now, just haunting) and how Rodriguez's 1970 debut album "Cold Fact" first became an underground hit in South Africa at the height of the apartheid regime (with songs like "The Establishment Blues") and eventually became a genuine hit album. It is about midway through the movie that we are introduced to Rodriguez himself, in present day, as he and the two South African men eventually hook up in 1997, and they now retell the story of what happened then. We see footage of Rodriguez coming to South Africa in early 1998, and the scenes we get to witness are almost beyond belief and description.
Several comments: Rodriguez (who now must be in his early 60s I think) comes across as a humble, truly down to earth guy, unfazed (and not bitter in the slightest) about how his life has unfolded. (The movie notes at the end that he still lives in the same modest downtown Detroit house he has lived in for 40 years.) As to the quality of his music, a mix of James Taylor-meets-Bob Dylan-meets Jim Croce, it is quite good and it only demonstrates again how unpredictable the music industry is: why does one good artist break through but others do not? Nobody knows. But the most burning question that I have on my mind is this: after the events in 1998, why has it taken another 14 years to bring this improbable story to US audiences? That aside, this is the second must-see, can't miss documentary I've seen in the last week (the other one being "The Imposter", check that one out also by all means). This is why I love well-made true-life documentaries as they always trump fiction. "Searching for Sugar Man" is HIGHLY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
on September 9, 2012
As a South African raised, with almost all my friends, on the music of Rodriguez it is almost impossible to believe that such a talent remained unrecognised in his home country.
This film goes some way to explaining it, but only some way. See it and buy "Cold Fact"; better late than never.
on December 21, 2012
Rodriguez was also known to us in the late 1970's / early 1980's in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), a small country north of South Africa. At that time our country was undergoing a civil war and a lot of children were schooled in Boarding Schools, as it was safer living at school than living at home on farms, as farms ran the risk of armed terrorist attacks.
As idle boarding school teenagers we listened to COLD FACT on our communal record player nearly every afternoon, scratched vinyl 'schkt-schkt' included.
As teenagers, these wise words and lyrics were correctly accepted at life-truth's and philosophy lessons - listen carefully and mull over the words.
Now, more than 30 years later I see this touching story unfold further. A truly wise man who superficially seemed to 'fail' in his resident country, yet unknowingly in other parts of the world (Southern Africa, Australia and parts of Europe) in places probably unknown to him, he was a huge success at positively influencing and teaching thousands with his wise words.
This story fittingly reminds us that LIFE works in strange ways.
Mr Rodriguez, I salute you and I thank you.
on October 11, 2012
I have been blessed on successive nights with documentaries I could scarcely believe were true. Last night it was The Imposter, this evening Searching for Sugar Man.
The story of Sixto Rodriguez' accidental stardom in South Africa is every amateur songsmith's wildest dream come true. Having plugged away for years in front of unappreciative hometown crowds - in Rodriguez' case, having given it away altogether - to then discover you have been adored all along, by half a million fans, must be quite the trip. A trip, in this case, from inner-city Detroit in 1971 to Cape Town, South Africa, in 1998.
Sixto Rodriguez was (if this film isn't really an elaborate hoax, a caveat you may take as read for the remainder of this review) a singer songwriter from Detroit who came to brief notice in the late sixties. He was picked up by a label which was part of the Motown empire. Perhaps his mistake was to ply Greenwich Village folk to the people of Motor City, but in any case his two recorded records sold not at all, and he was promptly dropped and passed quickly into oblivion.
Or so he thought: But not, as it turned out, in South Africa, where his songs had spread by word of mouth and bootlegged cassettes. Under Apartheid this Mexican American folkie became an immense underground hit. South Africa was then a police state, so this is no mean feat, but perhaps explains why there was no greater communication in or out of the republic, for Rodriguez knew nothing of this success: he didn't know his record was even released in South Africa, because it wasn't: in a story as implausible as the one about American sailors donating 45s to Liverpudlian guttersnipes and thereby educating them about Chuck Berry, someone's girlfriend came over from LA with a copy, it got taped and passed around, and before long it had shifted half a million copies. Viral marketing, 1971 style.
I checked with a South African compadre and it all seems to be true: his music (mostly a passable, if unremarkable, pastiche of Leonard Cohen or mid-sixties Dylan) is available on line. Still, vital things are not, or only half-, explained, such as how a few ropey C90s were converted into an officially released long playing vinyl record without interaction with the artist or his label, and where the money went: the film darkly hints at skulduggery amongst American impresarios, but never gets as far as pointing a finger.
In any case, the film's first half centres on two South African fans and their quest to find out more about this artist. Common consensus in Capetown had it that Rodriguez was long since dead, a victim of on-stage suicide, variously by self immolation, gunshot or overdose. The fans (one of whom is nicknamed "Sugarman" after Rodriguez' song) set out to get to the bottom of how he died.
*** spoiler alert ***
It is difficult to talk about the second half of the film without giving away the spoiler that they do eventually find a trail back to Rodriguez, and he's not dead at all - but still working as a casual labourer in Detroit. Sixto's nearing sixty and has three daughters.
It doesn't take long before he and his daughters are flying to South Africa for a concert tour. This last part of the film is an uplifting record of that triumphant tour, where over six nights he played to 30,000 hysterical fans. Really hysterical - Beatlemania style, mouthing every word of his lyrics. I dare say Leonard Cohen never had that.
Throughout it all Rodriguez remains nonchalant: he takes it all in his stride, returning after each tour to his labouring job in Detroit, where his co-workers are most amused to find he is recording artist at all, let alone one with a huge following.
*** spoilers over ***
This is a gentle, amusing, poignant tale of a labour of love and the redemption of a man who is big enough not to have been disappointed by his life's trajectory, set against a story so remarkable you'll have trouble believing it to be true. Well recommended.
on August 14, 2012
My wife Judy and I just viewed the Movie 8/11/12 in Royal Oak, MI., feel it is one of the best movies we have ever seen. It is the product of a great person, singer & musician who never really got his just dues, until now. I sincerely urge all of you to see this beautiful movie & witness his great music for yourselves. DVD soon to come. Definately a 5 Star Product!!
Before I could post my review here there are already 155 reviews of the feature film - and the Amazon Instant Video release - so I will not take up a lot of space here repeating the accolades given to the WONDERFUL documentary about an amazingly talented singer-songwriter who was virtually unknown in the US but was a huge success in South Africa. For a first film, Director Malik Bendjelloul , did an amazing job on virtually no budget. He used his life savings and even found himself creating the animation needed to recreate Rodriguez's early days in Detroit. Thanks to this life-affirming film the singer is now touring the world and his two albums and concert revenues are going to him. (The film never quite "follows the money" for the earlier royalties but I think that was done at Rodriquez' request.
If you saw the film in a movie theater or as an Instant Video, I will highly recommend that you at least watch the DVD. The bonus features really ad to the enjoyment of the film. In addition to a feature length commentary by Rodrigues and the Director, there is a 25 minute "Making of" featurette that is not just full of scenes from the film. Ano0ther bonus is a 10 minute Q&A filmed at the April 2012 Tribeca Film Fest which consists of Rodriguez performing one song live and then, with Bendjelloul, answering questions from the audience.
No matter what your musical tastes this film will draw you in and keep you entertained for its 87-minute running time. Note that I watched the DVD but the DVD and Bluray versions contain the same bonuses. I'm not sure if the images are much sharper on the Bluray.
I hope you found this review both informative and helpful.