Searching for Sugar Man: A review

When the nominations came out for this year’s Oscars, I went on the Oscar website, and checked out the Best Documentary category. They didn’t show the films, but they did show trailers for them, and I watched ’em all, thinking they all looked great.  I love documentary films, but they’re not always easy to find–without Netflix, I can’t imagine how anyone could see them.  I remember thinking that Searching for Sugar Man would probably win, and come February, it did.

Here’s the story it tells:  In 1970, a label called Sussex Records signed a little known Detroit singer/songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez to a two-record deal.  Under the name Rodriguez, he released two albums: Cold Fact in 1970, and Coming From Reality in 1971.  They bombed.  Just didn’t sell at all.  Rodriguez was working on a third album, which was never finished or released.  He disappeared from the music world, and worked for the next twenty five years as a common laborer, mostly in construction.

In the meantime, though, completely unknown to him, his records started selling in South Africa.  Who knows how it happened?  An American visited the country, brought a record with her, played it for friends, who recorded in cassettes, passed it on.  A record store, asked about it, contacted Sussex records.  Best estimates are that Cold Fact sold around a half million copies, all in South Africa. Coming From Reality, (which sounds today a shade over-produced) maybe a shade fewer.

South Africa was, of course, was locked into the policy of apartheid.  Strict censorship laws had been opposed.  And Rodriquez’ music began to be seen as subversive, as underground, as politically charged. it circulated. Plus, it’s really really good.  As one of the interviewees in Searching for Sugar Man says, ‘there were three albums you absolutely had to have, three albums that basically everyone had.  Abbey Road.  Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water.  And Cold Fact.’

I have to think, though, that part of Rodriquez’ appeal was his mystery.  Even living in South Africa, it wouldn’t have been all that hard to find out all sorts of information about Simon and Garfunkel, for example.  But Rodriquez?  You had this picture of this Hispanic looking guy, wearing sun glasses, smiling out at you from two album covers.  No biographical information at all.  You dig a bit: none can be found.  Liking Rodriquez becomes cool, vaguely subversive.  You were one of the cool kids: in the know.  So rumors filled the information void, and one rumor was that he was dead; that he had killed himself on-stage, after giving a concert.

Anyway, a Swedish filmmaker, Malik Bendjelloul picked up on the story, and interviewed two South African music guys, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, a record store owner, and Craig Strydom, a music journalists, who spent years trying to track down their favorite performer, the mysterious Rodriguez. They interview various South African musicians from the period, who protested apartheid musically and who confess they were heavily influenced by Rodriguez.  The film that results is a terrific detective story, and like all good detective stories, it comes with a fascinating plot twist.  And, of course, Rodriguez’ music carries the entire film. Those lyrics.  Those tunes.  The guitar playing.  That voice.

One mystery is ‘what happened to the money?’  After all, somebody in America was collecting all kinds of money from these hundreds of thousands of South African record sales, and we see Segerman and Strydom tracing that cash flow.  The South African distributors insisted they’d been sending money all along to Sussex Records.  So where did it go from there?  The film kind of seems to answer that question too.  Not directly, but Motown legend Clarence Avant, who ran Sussex until the label folded in 1975, is interviewed, and his answers couldn’t be more evasive.  Even Avant’s wikipedia entry mentions how suspicious his interview comes across in the film. “Money?  I don’t know about any money.  Not me.”

I don’t want to spoil the ending of this wonderful film.  Just watch it.  You’ll love it.  All the interviewees are delightful, and Rodriguez’ music sparkles.  But what really intrigues me is this: why did his records fail in the early 70s?

Because from 1971-1974, I was in high school.  I had a part-time job, and what I mostly spent my money on was three things–gas for my car, concert tickets, and record albums.  My friends and I shared music all the time.  We recorded albums on cassette tapes and played them in our cars.  We talked music all the time.  I couldn’t tell you how many times someone would say, ‘hey, you guys ever hear of ________? They’re fabulous.’  And the next thing you’d know, we’d all bought all of _______ albums. There were exceptions.  Like, everyone in my high school went through an Alice Cooper phase.  It lasted about three weeks, during which time you listened to nothing but Alice Cooper.  Then it wore off.  So there were, like, five Alice Cooper albums, and you’d just basically hand them off to the next guy going through that phase.

I don’t remember all the bands that we turned each other on to.  Obviously Gentle Giant was one; they were number one; the band you HAD to like.  King Crimson, The Moody Blues, Patto.  Early Genesis. The Small Faces, especially Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake, an album I basically wore out. Moby Grape, the Monks, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, The Thirteenth Floor Elevators.

But not Rodriguez.  And that’s weird to me.  Listen to “I wonder”.  Listen to that opening bass line.  I would have been hooked, if I’d ever heard that.  If that had come on the radio, that bass line, and then the lyric “I wonder how many times you’ve had sex” (hey, I was a teenager), I would have told everyone I knew.  My circle of friends (and I was in a very active high school drama program) would have all been into it.  Follow that with “Crucify your mind”, with those Dylanesque lyrics and that brass in the background–there’s no way I wouldn’t have bought that album.  Add to that, Sugar Man, (even in the oddly-psychedelic version on the album, which I anyway would have dug back in the day); man.  I would have been there.

So it’s a film of three mysteries, two of which it answers.  What happened to the money?  Who was Rodriguez, and what became of him?  And why the heck did I not buy these albums, back when I was young and hip and bought tons of music?

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