This 2012 uplifting documentary follows the unusual story of Sixto Rodriguez, the ’70s rock God who never was.
His music wasn’t a hit, so he disappeared into obscurity. However, unbeknownst to him his albums became a big hit in South Africa where they became something of an anthem against apartheid.
And in the late 1990s, two fans from Cape Town attempted to find out what happened to Rodriguez and see if he was still alive. This is the story!
Searching For Sugar Man
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul, the documentary opens with an exploration of Sixto Rodriguez’s early career.
In some ways there are similarities to Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project. An obscure figure from the 1970s, finally brought to the centre stage after a lifetime of hiding from the limelight.
So let us begin! Rodriguez was born in Detroit in 1942 (he’s now 79) and grew up in a working class family.
By 1967 his various efforts as a solo artist gained him attention, to the point of releasing his first album Cold Fact in 1970.
Picking up a record contract soon after, there were high hopes for him and the belief he’d be another Boy Dylan type of guy.
Here’s a sample of his music from the era, a very unusual (but striking) blend of folk rock, psychedelic folk, and psychedelic rock.
He followed that up with Coming From Reality in 1971. However, both albums were a massive commercial flop.
The result was he was dropped by his record label. Rodriguez promptly quit his music career in 1976 and abandoned his third album.
He subsequently began a career in demolition and production, working for a low income and leading a minimalistic lifestyle.
However, abroad his albums had been taking off in Australia, Botswana, New Zealand, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
Particularly in South Africa, where his records were viewed as the voice behind a social revoltion.
Searching For Sugar Man then follows the actions of two fans in Cape Town: Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom.
These two dudes loved the albums, but had come to believe (due to urban legends) that Rodriguez had died in the 1970s.
The rumour mill had created the idea he’d set himself on fire onstage.
Wanting to explore the truth behind this in a pre-internet era, they had few facts to go off on the albums.
Using the few details available, the pair were able to track down Rodriguez’s daughter. And after many years of waiting, they were finally able to speak to the man who is their hero.
This all took place around 1998, which launched Rodriguez back into the limelight (at least in South Africa) as he had a full rock star appearance performing live for his fans.
The 2012 documentary also brought back light onto the man, although the money he’s since made he’s handed over to his children.
He doesn’t seem overly concerned with money, the limelight, or anything else. And he leaves a pretty lowkey existence.
Lessons in humility! That’s one of the many highlights in this excellent and uplifting documentary.
It tells a positive story and does so with charm and verve, relaying the excitement of the fans alongside Rodriguez’s enigmatic nature.
The film is an Oscar winner, too, and he recommend (as it approaches it 10 year anniversary) to give it a watch. And remember the happy side to existence in doing so.
Tribute to Malik Bendjelloul
Just to close on a tribute note here, as Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul unfortunately suddenly died in mid-May 2014 at the age of 36. Bendjelloul had struggled with severe depression.
His next project, The Elephant Whisperer, was unfinished at the time of his death.
So it’s a tragedy the man responsible for such an uplifting documentary that helped thousands out of depressive slumps (even if momentarily) should succumb to this issue.
Searching For Sugarman won an Oscar for Best Documentary and it’s a fine piece of work.
Documentary filmmaking is an arduous and difficult task that takes a lot of creativity. Bendjelloul’s skill in crafting such an intricate and thoughtful story has to be commended.
And we think the film will remain an inspiring tribute to him for decades to come.