director Malik Bendjelloul
There are a number of remarkable documentaries about music, musicians, rock’n’roll, the business, ones that encapsulate so much of the experience of the dreams, aspirations, the fame, the realities of the world of making it as a musician. DiG! (2004) is a brilliant portrait of excess and ego. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005) is a remarkable image of genius(?) gone crazy. Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008) is an amusing picture of an “almost was” band. Each of those films offer some perspective on music and the people who’ve put their lives into their music and resonate, I believe, for anyone who has been in and around the music biz. Searching for Sugar Man adds yet another dimension to the films of the genre.
It’s the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a musician from Detroit from the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, who cut two albums, and despite some passionate appreciation by a few, disappeared from the music scene. Of course, in the United States, nobody really noticed and probably nobody really knew who he was.
But in South Africa, a country that for many years was under the brutal rule of Apartheid, somehow, Rodriguez’s music reached them and connected in a huge way. In South Africa, he was as popular and important as Bob Dylan, who Rodriguez sounds a bit like. But in the 1970’s-1980’s, cultural isolation kept this fact rather unknown. It isn’t until the 1990’s that a fan and a journalist research their way to find out what happened to Rodriguez, about whom some quite interesting urban myths existed.
It’s a pre-internet tale of discovery. Because they do find him, still in Detroit, a father of three adult women and a laborer working these many years in construction and living humbly. And they bring him to South Africa where this rather “normal” guy is heralded and welcomed as a huge rock star.
It’s a heartwarming story, certainly as its portrayed in the film, produced in Europe and directed by Malik Bendjelloul. Bendjelloul tells the tale as a detective story, from the South Africans who were such passionate fans that they unraveled their mystery fostered in distance and isolation.
The image of South Africa is quite interesting, getting a sense of the vibe of the young white people who lived during Apartheid, how the music fostered their own sense of rebellion and change. But mostly it’s Rodriguez himself. With his big black sunglasses, he just screams the part of “rock star”. This second generation Mexican-American in ice cold Detroit. A talent with some ardent admirers, still quite the humble man, even when decades later he is given the sort of treatment that inspires so many to become musicians. And now, with the film, he’s finally going to be better known in his native country. It’s quite a tale and it’s quite well-told.