Music documentaries are a curious sub-genre often set aside for obsessive completist fans and celebrity voyeurs but in recent years they’ve been going undergoing something of a renaissance. Big name film-makers have made big biographical pictures about world renowned stars with Scorsese adding George Harrison to his list of subjects as well as fans of Bob Marley and Paul Simon rushing to their nearest multiplex. There have also been films about lesser known artists whose stories are remarkable enough to hold our attention; DIG told the story of the rivalry and escalating violence between Portland’s Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre while The Devil and Daniel Johnson focussed on the distinctive artist’s battle with mental illness and rise to prominent cult success.
It is this second group into which Searching for Sugar Man firmly falls, coming from first time feature Director Malik Bendjelloul and featuring as it’s protagonist a true unknown, it tells a story that is unlikely to be repeated.
The Sugar Man is Rodriguez – a Hispanic singer/ songwriter hailing from Detroit who recorded two LP’s in the early 70’s that swiftly sank without a trace. Leading the search is Steve Segerman, a record store owner, Rodriguez fanatic and resident of South Africa. To understand how and why it is this record store owner a continent away feels so strongly about this forgotten artist he feels compelled to lead the search we must travel back to the recording of those two albums.
And travel back we do, talking heads from all involved in the recording of Cold Fact and Coming From Reality regale tales of Rodriguez’s discovery, the belief they had in the album, their utter conviction that it would make Sixto Rodriguez as big a musician as anyone around. The producers involved were already making records for the likes of Marvyn Gaye and Stevie Wonder and yet they go on record to say that is was Cold Fact that they see as their masterpiece. All pretty strong stuff, rose tinted nostalgia perhaps? As it turns out, their belief was completely merited. The music of Rodriguez is fully deserving of the praise heaped upon it yet the excessive proclamations by some speaking (one is on the verge of tears) seems a little trite knowing the fate of their musical genius. They are right about the music though – a cross between a number of important sounds of the era with elements of Bob Dylan Cat Stevens – that make it an even greater surprise that he failed to sell at all in America. This however is far from being the only surprise in the life of Rodriguez, one that makes for a gripping documentary.
Against all odds and circumstance, a copy of his first LP Cold Fact winds up in Apartheid South Africa where his songs of struggle and liberty instantly strike a chord with the liberal anti-apartheid movement soon becoming the biggest album of it’s day. It makes Rodriguez a nationwide star bigger than Elvis and the Rolling Stones with its lead track Sugar Man a bone fide hit and lending itself not only to the title but the nickname of our guide through the story Steve ‘Sugarman’ Segerman. He, like many others in the country knew nothing more of Rodriguez than the information they had on the record – a picture and three possible names (as well as Rodriguez he was credited under Jesus Rodriguez and Sixto Rodriguez). The cultural boycott imposed on their segregated nation meant it was difficult to receive any information about new overseas acts and, little-known to them, the rest of the world hadn’t taken to Rodriguez in equally overwhelming fashion meaning there was little information to be found on their elusive hero.
The tongues of Capetown’s muso’s started to wag and what the ears heard made for gruesome listening. Urban legends started to emerge, ranging from a grizzly onstage suicide to a drug overdose but all with the same outcome – Rodriguez was dead.
Decades pass, South Africa becomes a liberated nation and yet still Steve Segerman can find nothing to satisfy his unanswered questions about Rodriguez – the labels have long since shut down and not having remained in the music world for long little was known about him after those recordings. He enlists a fellow enthusiast and music detective Craig Bartholemew and the two set about tracing down a conclusive answer to the mystery surrounding Sixto’s disappearance.
What they discovered on their journey makes Bendjelloul’s film one of the most surprising and incredibly positive stories of the year, one that we are unlikely to see happen again. Bendjelloul comes from a background making 30 minute TV documentaries in his native Sweden but his step up to feature length films is seamless. There’s a cinematic quality to a number of scenes that belies the young Swede’s relative newcomer status to the medium. With the narrative he creates he becomes almost like a magician saving each reveal for maximum effect that enables you to enjoy this film regardless if you know the story or not, that said coming to this film with no knowledge at all is surely the most rewarding.
On top of an incredibly well crafted film is the music and life of Rodriguez himself – a man who was discovered with his back to the audience, establishing almost instantly the heir of mystique that carries through his life while simultaneously distancing himself from the rest of the world. This remarkable film and the strength of Rodriguez’s music will surely serve to ensure that distance doesn’t remain as big.