Searching for Sugar Man
The genre for this film would be categorised as a music documentary, but the story it narrates could come straight from a scripted drama. The documentary revolves around the 70s folk/rock singer Sixto Rodriguez, and if you’ve never heard of him, it’s probably because you’re not South African. The Detroit-born musician produced two albums, Cold Fact and Coming to Reality, which hailed no notable success in his home land of the USA but unknowingly, he became an artist as big as The Beatles in South Africa.
The film begins with two South Africans, record store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and music journalist, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom who were inspired by the popularity of the mysterious artist. They took it upon themselves to discover the fate of Rodriguez, with interviewees rumouring suicide as extravagant as dousing himself with petrol and igniting himself on stage. The two indulge us on the revolutionary period of the apartheid where Rodriguez’s working-class tone of music provided the sense and feel of freedom and anti-establishment which fuelled the peoples’ spirit during the difficult times they faced, which with no doubt provided a captivating hook within the film, and adding a further dimension to Rodriguez’s persona. Their journey finally leads to a pivotal moment of discovery where a lead enlightens the men with news that Rodriguez is, in fact, alive and kicking, living a humble and honest life back in Detroit, Michigan, blissfully unaware of the momentous fan base on the African continent. The climax of the film delves into Rodriguez’s pragmatic reaction, and his powerful moment of recognition.
First-time director Malik Bendjelloul has pieced together a fantastically engaging documentary, featuring interviews of citizens of Cape Town and Detroit of those who knew and loved Rodriguez, painting a portrayal of the man himself. When we finally get to witness the subject’s interview he expresses a tentative and withdrawn attitude which adds to the air of his enigmatic and furtive nature. Artistically, the film is shot beautifully with a brilliant visual contrast between the sprawling urban and industrial views of Detroit and the stunning Cape Town mountain terrain which correlate with the two different aspects of Rodriguez; an American zero–South African hero. Stylish animation also aids the narration of the artist’s story. Rodriguez’s music features extensively throughout the movie, and listening to his work makes one wonder why it didn’t receive the recognition it deserves. He writes meaningful lyrics born from his working class roots in the poor socio-economic population of Detroit, with influences from artists such as Bob Dylan, Tom Waits and The Beatles. Bendjelloul also incorporates a classical score, giving an aura of controversy and tension at the key points which makes an emotional watch.
Rodriguez’s story is truly touching, and we were engrossed throughout the whole film to get a glimpse into the man’s covert life, and when you are eventually allowed entry into his life, it’s a moving and special moment. A great film for music appreciators, but also well worth a watch for a gripping true-life tale of zero to hero.
Searching for Sugar Man opens the Sheffield DocFest on 13th June and is released nationwide on 27th July.
Watch the trailer for Searching for Sugar Man here