Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary by Swedish film maker Malik Bendjelloul that charts the heart-warming and astonishing story of the Detroit folk singer Sixto Rodriguez. Hailed as the Latino Bob Dylan, Rodriguez was virtually unknown in his home country; but in apartheid South Africa, he was bigger than Elvis.
After recording his début album Cold Fact with some of the biggest names in American music during the 60s and 70s, it was thought that Rodriguez was set for stardom. However, the album flopped and after recording his second album, Coming from Reality, Rodriguez was dropped from his label. As Rodriguez disappeared into obscurity, a copy of Cold Fact made its way to South Africa and was subject to a ferocious round of bootlegging. It was soon a cult favourite amongst the rebellious white baby-boomers of South Africa and Rodriguez’ records went on to sell over half a million copies. Rodriguez’ music was the soundtrack to the anti-apartheid movement. His iconic status was cemented when the South African government banned his music, physically scratching out tracks from Rodriguez’ vinyl records deemed unsuitable for radio play. The amazing part of this story is that neither Rodriguez, nor his legions of fans in South Africa, knew anything about each other. Rodriguez was oblivious to the sensation he had become and, conversely, no one in South Africa knew anything about their hero.
The documentary tells of Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, a second hand record dealer from Cape Town and his quest to find out more about Rodriguez, so as to connect a musical legend with his public. Segerman puts Rodriguez’ South African success into context when he tells us that you could walk into any Cape Town household in the early 70s and you were guaranteed to find three albums in their record collection: Abbey Road by The Beatles, Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel, and Cold Fact by Rodriguez. In an age when we demand to know absolutely everything about our musical icons, the paucity of information about Rodriguez seems an aberration. Rumours of a grizzly on-stage suicide and other accounts of Rodriguez’ demise only added to his mystery and allure. Segerman dispels the myths, but the truth that is revealed does not disappoint. His quest takes him from Cape Town to Detroit and these two cityscapes are vividly juxtaposed in the film: the cold winter nights of down town Detroit, where Rodriguez was “a wandering spirit”, are intertwined with sweeping panoramas of sunny Cape Town, the heart of his success.
This heart warming and informative film is soundtracked by Rodriguez’s own songs. It is music so suited to its era that it’s hard to believe it was such a commercial failure at the time. By the end of the film Rodriguez’ music has become so familiar, you begin to wonder why you haven’t been listening to it all your life.
Searching for Sugar Man has been called “unmissable” and it is just that. While the film is in a documentary format, it seems to blur the lines of fiction and reality, in part because it relates such an incredible tale. It is a story so dumbfounding that it has to be seen to be believed, and even then it still seems that it could be the most elaborate PR stunt ever conceived.