¨An obstacle is an inspiration.¨
Searching for Sugar Man is by far the best documentary I´ve seen this year and one of my all time favorites. Swedish director, Malik Bendjelloul, who has been known for producing musical documentaries brings us a fascinating story full of mystery and reminds us how easy it is for great talents to go unrecognized at times. I was completely hooked with this gripping story from the very beginning and wondered what had happened to this 70´s rocker that influenced South Africa in such a big way during the Apartheid. The documentary has some unexpected payoffs halfway through the film and some unbelievable twists. The soundtrack is also amazing and contributes even more to the mysterious factor as to how someone so talented was completely ignored in the United States. One of the producers claimed that in America he was zero, in South Africa a hero. The name of this mysterious man is Sixto Rodriguez, who in 1970 created an album that revolutionized South Africa during the oppressive regime. It was a soundtrack to their lives and millions identified with the powerful antiestablishment lyrics of his song, but no one knew anything about this man who was more famous than Elvis Presley in their country. As I listened to his songs in the soundtrack, I couldn’t even believe I hadn’t heard of this man before. Bendjelloul directed this wonderful film in a very gripping and mysterious way making Rodriguez even more mystical than he already was. This is one great detective story, or as they call it in the documentary musicologist detective story. The film was also beautifully shot, drifting from images of Detroit (Rodriguez´s hometown) to others in Cape Town where we see the contrast of this man´s fame. This documentary is worth checking out for the powerful and emotional story alone. It is better than most thrillers I´ve seen lately.
The documentary begins with the narration of a South African named Stephen Segerman, who has been nicknamed Sugar for a well known song in the 70´s known as Sugar Man. As he speaks and tells us the story of this mysterious musician who everyone in South Africa has heard about, we can hear the song playing in the background. Segerman explains the significance that his music had during the apartheid in South Africa where the government was controlling the information from the outside world. Somehow a bootleg from Rodriguez´s 1970 album, Cold Fact, made its way to Cape Town and became an instant success selling over half a million copies in that country. Rodriguez became a rebel icon and his music influenced the underground movement, but no one knew anything about this man. Unlike other successful rockers, nobody knew who this man really was and an air of mystery surrounded this man. Several tragic stories were told about his grotesque suicide, some claimed he set himself on fire in a concert and others that he shot himself in the head during another presentation. Rodriguez became a legend in South Africa, but no one really knew anything else about this man. That is where Segerman comes in as he begins to search for clues and information about his past. By listening closely to the lyrics he begins discovering some clues as to where this man might have lived, and so the detective story begins with some thrilling discoveries. Segerman finally discovers and interviews some of the producers of his two albums who all seem to agree that Rodriguez should have been a star because of his great lyrics, but somehow his albums never sold. Some even claimed he was better than Bob Dylan. Segerman shows the contrast of how affecting his music was in South Africa, and how nonexistent it was in America. His investigations will lead to some surprising discoveries along the way.
The way in which Segerman begins to solve the mystery of Rodriguez´s life is what makes this detective story so interesting and gripping. There are some great discoveries along the way as we listen in the background to several of his songs, which I absolutely enjoyed. It made me want to buy the album. The mystery surrounding this man´s grotesque death made this even more dramatic and thrilling to watch. Who would have ever thought that a musicologist detective story would be so interesting? What made this documentary even more dramatic was the fact that this man had never realized how his music impacted another country the way it did. But then what seemed to be the ending of one story ended up being the beginning of an even better one. I don’t want to go into too much detail because I don’t want to give anything away, but the payoff is incredible. The search and hunt for Rodriguez pays off in the end with some incredible discoveries. Searching for Sugar Man is a grandiose story and one worth seeing.