Searching for Sugarman

I missed this when it first came out in London; not surprising as it played for a very short time and the buzz hadn’t hit the streets yet. Now it has won the Best Documentary Oscar, everyone is talking about Searching for Sugar Man. And rightly so.

Very much in the style of two recent documentaries, Marleyand The Imposter(both reviewed on www.vickyatthemovies.net, with 4 stars a-piece), Searching for Sugar Mantells the sad tale of Sixto Rodrigues. In the 70s, Rodrigues cut an enigmatic figure playing the clubs of down-town Detroit, often with his back to the audience, and worked days in construction. As a contemporary says, ‘There was something mysterious about him. He looked like a drifter’. 

He was taken under the wing of producers from well-known record labels (Sussex/A & R) and Motown boss, Clarence Avant, and released two critically well-received albums, Cold Fact (1970) and Coming from Reality (1971). He did some touring, including to Australia, but he faded into penniless obscurity.

His songs reached South Africa via the bootleggers, and became anthems for the growing numbers of dissatisfied Afrikaner youth: songs like Sugar Man, with its overt references to drug use, and Establishment Bluesbecame iconic, before being banned. His records, even with the offending tracks scratched off by the censors, sold over 500,000 copies. He was, as record-store-owner Stephen Segerman says, ‘bigger than Elvis’ in South Africa.

The story really begins when Segerman, known locally as Sugar Man in acknowledgement to his devotion to Rodrigues, undertakes the quest to find out more about this mysterious man, who is rumoured to have committed suicide on stage in despair over his lack of success. He joins forces with fellow South African, journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, and they begin, as one does, to ‘follow the money’.

Like peeling an onion, the layers of secrecy and rumour are skillfully and exquisitely revealed, using original video footage of Rodrigues, some taken on mobile phones when the film-makers ran out of money. Rodrigues songs naturally form the soundtrack. It all adds to the retro ambiance.

The testimony of former producers Mike Theodore, Dennis Coffey and Steve Rowland, and Clarence Avant himself, only add to the mystery. How come they all thought he was one of the most talented artists of his generation, a new Dylan or Cat Stephens, a singer of moody yet catchy blues and ballads, but never put their money where their mouth is? 

Talking of which, what happened to all the money from the South African record sales? Interviews with his work-mates, who didn’t really believe that he had this other life, his family, and anti-Apartheid campaigners, to whom he was a hero, are both poignant and uplifting simultaneously. There is even archive footage of the man himself. As I said before, very much in the Marleygenre, the difference being the one is a world-famous super-star, the other unknown, but maybe one in the making now his story is told.

What emerges is a tribute and a celebration of a supremely talented man – a humble singer and song-writer who was too self-effacing to believe in himself. As the movie comes to its conclusion, one is left with a glow of satisfaction, the feel-good factor essential to a good film, and the songs firmly stuck in one’s mind. We bought both albums immediately and can now share in the legacy of the remarkable Sixto Rodrigues.

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