Swedish Documentarian Malik Bendjelloul and his team have mined a rich source for a documentary, for seldom do detective stories, music and true life align in this genre. In the late 70’s a musician named Sixto Rodriguez recorded two albums; Cold Fact and Coming from Reality. Despite good reviews from magazines both albums became staggering failures of little note. Dropped by Sussex Music as a disappointment Sixto Rodriguez disappeared into the drug-fuelled murk of the 70s, his producers uncertain just where he came from. He was a shy man who they found playing in a bar in Detroit with his back to the audience and never shared much personal information with them, including an address or whether he was married. Like many of the poor he was like a phantom. Such is the legend of Rodriguez.
The music of Rodriguez is similar to that of Bob Dylan, though unique in its point-of-view of life from the very bottom of the economic scale. His words were harsher and angrier and with a more resonant sense of despair, which was oddly fitting. The title of the movie is derived from his most famous song, Sugar Man, which about the ecstasy and the agony of drug addiction, and the song does not end but fades out, almost like he did from the music scene. Most music from this period can be a matter of personal taste, though his producers and even record company boss consider him better than Bob Dylan.
When Searching for Sugar Man first premièred at Sundance earlier this year many thought it was a mockumentary. It seemed too eerily mythic, too enticing to be real. It had to be fiction, right? But there are millions who will tell you otherwise. How Cold Fact made it to the culturally isolated Republic of South Africa too is a legend. What is known that first it was a bootleg tape-recording handed around in the suburbs of Cape Town, and later Johannesburg before a local record company bought the rights to distribute the music. In the past fourty years Cold Fact went platinum perhaps five times, making Rodriguez more endearing than Elvis, Bob Dylan or the Beatles.
The 70’s was a difficult time for South Africa. Because of Apartheid there was a cultural boycott with music acts refusing to travel here. All white, able-bodied males were conscripted into the Army to fight border wars while those who objected to the government was either deported, jailed or harassed. Much like Bob Dylan did in the United States Rodriguez found its roots in the growing discontent with authority, particular the nationalist government. A portion of the movie is dedicated to showing to what lengths the government went to unofficially repress Cold Fact while examining the influence it had on local music. After the end of Apartheid the country come out of seclusion and we realized that Americans or Brits did not know who this “Jesus Rodriguez” was. Amateur musicologist and indie-record store owner Stephen “Sugar Man” Seegerman and a journalist named Craig Bartholomew both decided to discover what exactly happened to someone who meant so much to them.
Without giving away the ending (which a casual Wikipedia search, or even viewing the trailer would do) Stephen and Craig’s journey is retraced by the filmmakers with an ending neither expected. The movie takes several unexpected turns, touching onto the subjects of mythmaking, record company corruption and finally the ultimate fate of their hero as it retraces their steps, sometimes using recreation and even animation. More tellingly it also illustrates just how a musician can crawl and colonize a person’s subconscious.
Would it be a spoiler to say that the story has an uplifting yet bittersweet ending? Probably, but sometimes everyone deserve a second chance.
* Just a note: Rodriguez was also very popular in Australia and New Zealand as well, something the movie does not dwell on at all. Their part in the story should have been acknowledged, at least.