The story of an obscure rocker from Detroit, Sixto Rodriguez, Searching for Sugarman is one of the strangest ever told. It’s also very beautiful, a reminder of the infinite potential of individuals and the abysmal void between what they are really worth and what is perceived by the public, especially if you look at the profitability factor above others.
Rodriguez is a singer-songwriter from the dark corners of Detroit (industrial pipes spitting out smoke against foggy skies), who managed to write catchy socially aware songs with powerful lyrics, get a deal with Sussex Records in the early 1970s, excite his producers, and make them call him one of the ‘top five’ artists they had ever worked with (against the likes of Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, mind you).
The strange thing happened when the records he made – original, timely, spot-on – did not do anything at all in terms of sales. Suggestions are made in Searching for Sugarman that America wasn’t ready for a Latin star, the next Mexican Bob Dylan; so Rodriguez disappeared back into obscurity, continuing his work at jobs no one else wanted.
Among the many legends circulating around the secluded rocker, Searching for Sugarman mentions this one: a copy of the record by Rodriguez was brought to South Africa by an American girl who was visiting her boyfriend. Many illegal copies were made and his fame spread quickly.
To the white liberal class his popularity was equal to Elvis Presley, the Beatles and The Rolling Stones. South Africans learnt the word ‘anti-establishment’ through Rodriguez’s songs – and the concept of protesting against their own government, which in turn, as the makers of the movie claim, began to kick start the anti-apartheid movement. Rodriguez became a rebel icon; his ’I Wonder’ was a huge hit in the country, while nothing was known about his personal life. This enigma and the determination of a few South Africans to shed light on the life of Rodriguez brought about a chain of events that are very entertaining indeed. But for them you have to watch the documentary…
Besides the musical and political themes in the movie, Searching for Sugarman describes Rodriguez’s family life, and his way of upbringing his children with respect and understanding of the arts, taking them to places where only ‘the privileged’ went. It’s refreshing to see a guy with a degree in philosophy who still lives very modestly but has an unbending winner perspective on life. His three soft spoken, intelligent daughters are great fruit of his work.
With Searching for Sugarman, director Malik Bendjelloul sheds new light on the anti-apartheid events in South Africa, and the participation of the whites in the big changes that came as a result of the movement. This doc does play with fact, implying that Rodriguez did not do much in terms of his musical career after the label dropped him – one look at a Wikipedia article will disprove that. The stereotyping of the music business being a dog-eat-dog whirlpool full of sharks is somewhat exaggerated (but Clarence Avant, founder of Sussex Records, does a few ugly things on camera). The music industry didn’t rip Rodriguez off, and it is clear from his interviews that this man has made a choice to live a modest lifestyle, and has donated the money he made to friends and family. It’s a wonderful example of an extraordinary musician appearing on David Letterman making a personal choice to live the life as he wishes.
I am from Belarus, born in the USSR. The story of Rodriguez may seem fantastical to Americans, where musicians make money by selling records, but for me this is actually a regular story of a rocker whose songs are played in every household but who has to be a pauper and rely on the kindness of friends to get by. The American idea of royalties was not known in the Soviet Union where many musicians who were widely popular had to have a ‘day job’ to make ends meet. I am sure people from other countries can relate to that. It’s extremely interesting to watch Searching for Sugarman from this point of view, especially in the age of YouTube and The Pirate Bay, where both geographical and legal boundaries are gradually being erased.
The 1.78:1 widescreen transfer of Searching for Sugarman is mastered at 1080p. The resolution and colors are all up to par. The documentary uses old video materials and photographs, newly shot footage as well as some animation sequences, all of which are done nicely, contrasting and enriching each other. The English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is done beautifully, which is important for a movie where songs play such a huge part. The music by Rodriguez sounds powerful and rich, the songs are really potential hits and will be with you the next morning. The numerous interviews are clear and easily discernible (despite the different aspects of the talking heads) which makes the whole experience really enjoyable. Closed captioning is in English; subtitles are in English and French.
The extras include a full-length audio commentary with director Bendjelloul and Rodriguez, who mostly focus on production stages and crucial decisions made during the filming but also features Rodriguez present his point of view on the story.
“Making Sugar Man,” is a 30-minute documentary that discusses production issues in more detail and “An Evening with Malik Bendjelloul and Rodriguez” is a 11-minute interview with the director and star of the doc.
There is a theatrical trailer as well, plus a flyer advertising the Searching for Sugarman soundtrack (which is amazing, BTW).
All in all, this is a great package for all music aficionados and newly found fans of Rodriguez. I personally couldn’t get enough of this musician, such a different figure in the world of ‘me me me’ celebrities.
Verdict: Searching for Sugarman is a must-see documentary about a unique individual who manages to soar above the mundane with an ease of an eagle. The soundtrack, that is not only beautiful and inspiring but also timely and relevant in the post-depression America, is an added bonus.