Searching For Sugar Man
by George Sax
One might too easily conclude that Sixto Rodriguez’s long-interrupted music career is just another refutation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum that “There are no second acts in American life.” It’s not that simple, but as Malik Bendjelloul’s unusual, expertly assembled documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, makes clear, the answer is more complex and perplexing than the Jazz Age author’s pronouncement. Rodriguez, a Detroit singer-songwriter, has a story that’s strange, but somehow bound up with American life.
Before Bendjelloul’s movie was released several months ago, it’s unlikely more than a handful of Americans remembered or had ever heard of Rodriguez. It was a very different story in South Africa, where he had a symbolic and influential place among a segment of the population.
Rodriguez was discovered more than 40 years ago in a smoky waterfront dive in the Motor City by a couple of local record promoters and producers, who forthwith decided to record the Mexican-American youth. These two men, and others who came into early contact with him, appear on camera and recall their surprised pleasure at encountering him in performance in those days, and their failure to understand why, after two albums, his career failed to take off. After finding no appreciable success, Rodriguez repaired to Detroit to work at laboring and remodeling jobs, marry and raise a family. Virtually none of his acquaintances knew of his near-brush with musical celebrity.
But in apartheid-era South Africa, he was finding a following among middle-class white youngsters who felt frustrated and isolated in their boycotted, sanctioned, brutally race-segregated country. Rodriguez’s sometimes introspective and dreamy, sometimes independence-declaring songs struck a chord with these restlessly disaffected youth. And when it was erroneously reported that he had publicly killed himself on a bandstand, he achieved a legendary status that lasted into the post-apartheid era of the 1990s.
Eventually, a young music journalist tracked him down in Detroit, essentially by following the money. (Rodriguez’s albums sold 500,000 copies, in a country a tenth the size of the US, the money from which he never received.)
It’s a strange yet oddly inspirational tale, and the South African Bendjelloul’s movie presents it artfully. Combining interviews, archival and contemporary footage and animation, he creates an evocative, vivid ambiance. If he never really breaks through to pin down the personality of his elusive, Zen-centered subject, it’s probably not his fault. The movie tells a curiously, humanely appealing story.
Watch the trailer for Searching For Sugar Man
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