Sing The Praises Of 'Searching for Sugarman'

Photo of Mélissa Leclézio
10 January 2017

Little hype greeted the UK theatre release of the late Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary Searching for Sugar Man, but critics were quick to sing its praises.

Searching for Sugar Man depicts the mystery surrounding an obscure American folk singer who unknowingly inspired a generation of South Africans, some of whom, motivated only by their passion for his music, tried and find out what became of their idol.

A recent article by a British journalist suggested that the documentary industry had become a conveyor of apocalyptic messages ranging from climate change cataclysms to failures of the judicial system and class warfare.

If this were true, then Searching for Sugar Man is the definite antidote to the journalist’s concerns. It is also one of the most inspiring, satisfying, unpredictable and enjoyable documentaries of the last few years.

The search begins in Cape Town, where Sugar Man – aka Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, Jesus Rodriguez or simply Rodriguez – has been a legend for the past thirty years, ever since anti-apartheid youngsters got hold of his first LP Cold Fact (1970). There we meet two locals – one of whom calls himself ‘Sugar Man’ after Sixto’s song – who have dedicated their entire adult lives to solving the Rodriguez mystery. This is something that makes perfect sense as the story unfolds and you begin to wish you had taken part in the investigation, so incredible is Sixto’s story.

Rodriguez was named Sixto because he was the sixth child born into a family of Mexican immigrants. Raised in Detroit, he was spotted in a bar in 1967 by two producers who saw potential in his mesmerizing voice and sad lyricism. Cold Fact was released by Sussex Records in the United States three years later and, surprisingly, received mixed reviews and ultimately bombed. Neither the riveting songs nor the soul clenching melodies helped to sell the album.

A similar fate awaited the second album Coming from Reality (1971), leaving what could have been the greatest icon of a generation with two flops and no record label. While Sixto obscurely fell into oblivion in the US, his music was becoming a rallying cry on the other side of the Atlantic – inspiring a generation of anti-apartheid white Afrikaners.

They found hope and courage in Rodriguez’s prophetic and anti-establishment lyrics, and although the authorities censored various songs for their explicit references to sex and drugs, Cold Fact became the ‘soundtrack to their lives’. The iconic status of the singer was further justified when rumours started spreading in the liberal circles of Cape Town and Johannesburg that Sugar Man had committed a sensational suicide, setting himself alight or shooting himself in the head on stage.

It wouldn’t be until years later that our two fearless investigators, yearning to understand why their idol had dropped from sight, set out on an international hunt for answers — decrypting Sixto’s lyrics, following shady leads and contacting everyone who had ever worked alongside the vanished singer.

As it turned out, Rodriguez was a mystery even for those who knew him. Described as a ‘inner-city poet’, a ‘wandering spirit’ and even a ‘prophet’, the man was so enigmatic that some bartender even assumed he was a hobo clueless that he was outselling Elvis in Cape Town at the time. The truth is that Rodriguez was a construction worker; but this is only the beginning of the mystery and to reveal more would spoil the pleasure of the film which is best enjoyed when watching as obliviously as possible.

Director Bendjelloul skilfully interweaves historical footage, archive images, and interviews. The latter reveal that Clarence Avant, the founder of Sixto’s record label Sussex, denies having seen any royalties – claiming that it was unbeknownst to him that Cold Fact was booming in South Africa.

This deliberately raises questions about financial transparency between record labels and artists, and one wonders how many talented individuals have disappeared into obscurity with a hole in their pocket while remorseless producers tan on Mustique Island.

Sixto’s story and his songs will touch your soul in a profoundly melancholic way, and his recognition is long awaited and well deserved.

Watch the trailer for ‘Searching for Sugarman’ below:

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