The mysterious, incredible story of Rodriguez is a tale of uncommon power, and Searching for Sugar Man is the brilliant documentary that brings it to vivid life in nearly perfect fashion. Sixto Rodriguez was a singer-songwriter from the streets of Detroit who recorded two albums in the early 1970s and earned the gushing admiration of producers and respected music authorities of the time. He unknowingly amassed a legion of passionate fans in South Africa who held him in comparable esteem to how the rest of the world has considered the likes of Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and Simon and Garfunkel for nearly half a century.
While the world at large had never heard of Rodriguez because his two critically acclaimed albums from 1970 (Cold Fact) and 1971 (Coming From Reality) tragically flopped, he went on to sell hundreds of thousands of records in South Africa during the height of Apartheid. Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter and supposed drifter known for performing with his back to the audience in small clubs in Detroit, went on to become a mythic figure shrouded in mystery. While hardly anybody in America had ever heard of the Detroit songwriter with an unparalleled gift for penning gritty portrayals of gritty life steeped in social awareness and lush arrangements, his fans in Apartheid-stricken South Africa cherished his songs that fueled a revolution and shared gruesome tales of his suicide that cemented his horrific demise.
Young Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul lays the groundwork of the stunning emotional core at the heart of Searching for Sugar Man by giving voice to the music dignitaries and Detroit inhabitants who knew the young Rodriguez firsthand in the 60s and late 70s, and, perhaps more importantly, allowing a few of the most passionate of Rodriguez’s hundreds of thousands of fans to share the effects Rodriguez’s music had on them and their lives. The manner in which Bendjelloul perfectly incorporates Rodriguez’s astounding songs in the myth of a previously unknown cult figure, and the passionate pursuit to unravel the layers of mystery behind his demise that ensues is a story of staggering power and redemption that will leave you stunned and grinning ear-to-ear.
Bendjelloul’s labor of love, which he made on a dime (taking it upon himself to craft animations, use a Super 8 app for flashbacks to wondrously enhance intrigue, and score fitting musical interludes that accompany Rodriguez’s brilliant original songs) over the course of four years, was an opening night selection at Sundance (where it won the Special Jury Prize) in 2012, scored critical raves on the festival circuit, and just earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, is one of the most outstanding and heartwarming stories you will ever have the pleasure of experiencing.
How is it possible for a rock and pop songwriter who you’ve never heard of, one who his fans speak in the same breath as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Simon and Garfunkel, to be so beloved and respected yet unknown to virtually everyone?
The producers and label owners who knew Rodriguez are up front about the heartache and frustration they endured when Rodriguez’s debut album, Cold Fact, earned raves from critics but proved to be an unthinkable commercial flop. In the film, Sussex Records (Rodriguez's label) owner Clarence Avant (“The Godfather of Black Music”), who would go on to be Chairman of Motown Records, says if he had to pick the ten most talented artists he’d ever worked with, “Rodriguez would be in the top five.” Avant believed Rodriguez was doing things not even Bob Dylan could touch. Others who knew and worked alongside Rodriguez at the height of social revolution in time of Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, express the same sentiments.
Rodriguez’s story is not the first to ever tell the tale of a great artist who was never recognized for his achievements while in his prime. Such a story always deserves to be heard, and many of those stories have been told in other documentaries, films, and biographies over the years. Searching for Sugar Man is the in the highest echelon of works that introduce the output of a great artist on a grand scale, but Bendjelloul’s documentary towers above the very best of its peers because it compassionately and intoxicatingly brings the mystery and beauty of Rodriguez to life. As Bendjelloul is quick to point out, Rodriuguez’s story is “the greatest story I’d ever heard.”
Though you’ll be forgiven for too quickly sneering at what must be a wildly enthusiastic exaggeration, Bendjelloul hits the nail on the head. Rodriguez’s story is more than a tale of a great artist who “should have but never was.” Searching for Sugar Man is a compelling mystery, a fascinating tale of an alternate reality that could not exist in the internet age, and a triumphant testament of faith, human spirit, and serendipitous fortunes that “should not happen in a rational, real world.” Perhaps most significantly, Bendjelloul’s film provides us an intimate introduction into one of the most admirable, humble heroes to ever grace the silver screen. As Rodriguez’s Coming From Reality laments onscreen, “This guy deserves recognition. Nobody in America even heard of him. Nobody was even interested in him. How can that be- a guy who writes like this?” The lasting takeaways that his music will receive recognition for generations to come, and the unthinkable humility you’ll witness after the big reveal will take your breath away and leave you cheering.
Rodriguez was a secret luminary in the Apartheid generations and the thought of him continuing to make music beyond the terrible injustice of the mere two albums he was granted is a stirring wonder that will probe your mind long after the credits of Searching for Sugar Man roll. That those very songs that never found American ears but miraculously found their way onto the home turntables and minds of just about every single “white, liberal middle-class household” in South Africa during the height of Apartheid and, along with The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, became the DNA of a movement that gave voices to the voices, fought social injustice, and helped fuel a revolution.
Bendjelloul wisely starts Rodriguez’s story in Cape Town and allows the Detroit songwriters’ biggest fans to explain the immeasurable impact his music has had upon their lives and their homeland. The possibility that the rest of the world has heard of Rodriguez (let alone held his music in equal esteem to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Elvis) is a possibility they could never have imagined. At a time when South Africa ‘s Apartheid made it a political pariah to the rest of the world, minimal information or culture not censored by the government could get into the country and little information beyond the racial and political unrest at the heart of Apartheid was exported. Somehow, mysteriously and miraculously, a bootleg cassette of Rodriguez’s Cold Fact worked its way inside the country’s borders and played no small part in expanding the consciousness of an ailing country’s entire generation.
The wonder that Rodriguez could improbably become a hero to generations of an entire nation, be “as famous as Elvis,” and sell no less than “half a million records” in South Africa, while nobody on the other side of the Atlantic knew anything of Rodriguez’s South African successes is a conundrum that will have your mind reeling throughout the entirety of Searching for Sugar Man.
Rodriguez’s music is the glue that holds the story together. His songs of unrivaled poetry and soulful arrangements deserved to be instant classics. As you listen to songs “Sugar Man,” “Crucify Your Mind,” “I Wonder,” “Inner City Blues,” “Cause,” “This Is Not A Song, It’s An Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues,” “A Most Disgusting Song,” and countless others from Cold Fact and Coming From Reality should have been instant classics that endured for generations like the catalogs of The Beatles, The Doors, and Bob Marley. As you’ll discover when you fall in love with Rodriguez’s music, and as one Rodriguez’s Cold Fact co-producers wonders aloud at the outset of Searching for Sugar Man, it makes no sense why Rodriguez wasn’t a tremendous success when everything was so obviously in place for him. For those who recognized Rodriguez’s genius from the start, it could’ve driven them mad wondering about all the “what ifs,” like album artwork, a “Spanish-sounding name,” song sequencing, or album colors.
Now that Light in the Attic Records has reissued Cold Fact, Coming From Reality, and the Searching for Sugar Man original soundtrack comprised of Rodriguez’s songs, and the fact that Bendjelloul’s documentary has scored both an enthusiastic fan base and Academy Awards prestige, the possibility of Rodriguez’s legacy earning wholly deserving recognition is a very real possibility.
The notion of alternate reality is a magical theme that will permeate your headspace during and after Searching for Sugar Man. In every other story of “should have but never was,” a theme of alternate reality is entirely tragic. Although it should (and does) hold some sadness in the Sugar Man fairy tale, the life of our heroic protagonist is what makes the story an unabashed inspirational triumph. Unless you have some knowledge of Rodriguez’s music, Searching for Sugar Man is a story best experienced knowing as little as possible going into your viewing. Rodriguez’s story, and Bendjelloul’s film that does it nothing short of perfect justice, is an inspiring triumph, populated by more than a dozen of the finest songs you’ve never heard that should have been instant classics, and it is told by dozens of zealous, faithful heroes who add shimmering fragments to a breathtaking narrative so thrilling and inspiring you can’t believe it’s absolutely true.
Rodriguez’s tale truly is a once in a lifetime story that will never again be replicated in our technologically advanced “everything all the time” society. How often can you say you had the chance to witness one of the greatest stories never before told, while fully aware you will never again see a story remotely like it? Bendejelloul has said he will never do another non-fiction film unless it’s a story as good as that of Rodriguez. Although it’s quite unlikely Bendjelloul will ever find an untold story of such a caliber, let’s hope he steps back up to the plate to take a swing at another film in the near future. If it’s ends up being half as incredible as Searching for Sugar Man, the world will be a better place. For the time being though, the world already is a wondrous place, because now we have and can cherish Rodriguez.
Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some drug references with a running time of 86 minutes, the Blu-ray and DVD releases include commentary with director Malik Bendjelloul and Rodriguez and two featurettes: "An Evening with Malik Bendjelloul and Rodriguez" and "Making Sugar Man."
*This post first appeared on The Silver Tongue on January 13, 2013.
Searching for Sugar Man Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Searching for Sugar Man is out now courtesy of Light in the Attic Records. It is Rodriguez's first album to appear on the Billboard Top 100 album chart and spent 11 weeks on the Top New Artist - Heatseekers chart, peaking at # 1. "This soundtrack features the most definitive songs from Rodriguez's first two albums, and reveals an artist whose lyrics are timeless, and whose message of hope confirms the resonating power of music."
Rodriguez - "Sugar Man"
Rodriguez - "Crucify Your Mind"
Rodriguez - "I Wonder"
Searching for Sugar Man Track List:
1. Sugar Man
2. Crucify Your Mind
4. I Wonder
5. Like Janis
6. This Is Not a Song, It's An Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues
7. Can't Get Away
8. I Think Of You
9. Inner City Blues
10. Sandrevan Lullaby - Lifestyles
11. Street Boy
12. A Most Disgusting Song
13. I'll Slip Away
14. Jane S. Piddy
Justin works as a content producer for ChaCha in Indianapolis during the day. He got his start writing music pieces with Laundromatinee in Indianapolis, where he still makes featured contributions. Justin resides in Noblesville, IN, and his personal blog, Division St. Harmony, can be found at www.divisionstharmony.tumblr.com.
His first loves in music have long been The Clash, Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. His personal tastes are fairly broad and include garage, indie rock, classic rock, Americana, roots, outlaw and classic country, punk, blues, rhythm and blues and soul.
Justin takes pride in an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Justin welcomes you to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel and on Facebook.
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