The first time that I heard ‘Sugar Man’ I was seven year old, restlessly confined within my great Aunt’s dusty Kenilworth flat. Driven mad by boredom and the fetid smell of old people, and hoping to imitate the cool guy from Limp Bizkit, I decided to try my hand at turntablism. Wiping the dust off an old Technics record player, I slapped on the first LP that I could find. It was Cold Fact by Rodriguez. Fortunately, I was unable to transform the timeless folk-ballad into rap-metal; nor were my unskilled scratching-efforts able to detract from Rodriguez’ hauntingly ethereal voice and impressionable words about “silver magic ships” and “sweet Mary Jane”.
Despite the popularity of Cold Fact amongst South African youth during the sixties and seventies, little is known about the life of Sixto Rodriguez and his ascendance to unrecognized musical greatness. As something of a mythical icon, his story is shrouded in legend and misinformation, and it is precisely this sense of mystery which ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ latches onto.
The opening shot is of a scenic Cape Town coastal-drive, which is accompanied by an introduction from Stephen Segerman – a familiar figure in the South African music scene. Capetonians may recognize Stephen as the owner of a music store called ‘Mabu Vinyl’, located just at the top of Long Street. The documentary recounts the story of Segerman’s relentless efforts to uncover the personal history of Rodriguez.
In the process, an astonishing discovery is made [spoiler alert]: contrary to the popular tale that Rodriguez committed suicide by dousing himself in flames during a concert, the legend of a man is found alive and kicking in his American hometown. Before long, Stephen has booked Rodriguez for a tour, and the South African post-60s generation is left in shock as they witness their teen-idol not just alive, but rocking a sold-out performance at the Bellville Velodrome!
The film is put together in a thoughtful and creative manner, combining an imaginative collection of contemporary, archival and animated footage from South Africa and Detroit. Needless to say, the film is a must-see for any Rodriguez enthusiast, who will undoubtedly get a musical fix, as well as glimpses of the streetscapes that gave rise to Rodriguez’ creative brilliance.
The true beauty of this documentary, however, lies in the fact that it actually fans the aura of mystery that has always surrounded Rodriguez. As the daughter of Rodriguez is quoted saying: “sometimes a fantasy is better kept alive”; the documentary certainly pays homage to this, raising as many questions as it answers:
Why is a man who might have been as great as Bob Dylan currently living as an ageing construction worker in Detroit? What happened to all of the money that Rodriguez should have made from his album sales in South Africa? And most of all, why was he largely unrecognized in States, and yet placed on par with artists such as the Stones and the Beatles in South Africa?
In this sense, the documentary is just as much about the peculiarities of South African society as it is about the musical exploits of Rodriguez. Why were we able to recognize musical greatness where the mighty States saw nothing? One suggestion is that a repressive Apartheid society caused his songs to be adopted as anthems of anti-apartheid activism. Thus, we are taken on a cinematic tour of protests from WITS and UCT during the late 70s, whilst the “Anti-establishment Blues” plays in the background, as if Rodriguez provided the official soundtrack to South Africa’s revolution.
Looking around the cinema, the irony slaps me in the face like the smell of the Hout Bay fish-factory on a hot summer’s day: there’s not a black person in sight. The cinema is filled predominantly with the wealthy, the elderly and the pale; it could easily have been a scene from the 1970s. For a moment I realize that this film is simply an excuse for South Africa’s post-60s generation to reminisce about the good old days of flower-brandishing and joint-smoking, patting themselves smugly on the backs for their efforts at bringing about democracy. The militancy of ANC and the ideology of the Black Consciousness must have been fostered to the sounds of a different sound-track.
I’m soon able to look beyond my political cynicism, however, and enjoy the bitter-sweet manner in which the documentary is wrapped up. We learn that Rodriguez never reaped the benefits of his stardom: to this day he lives a modest existence as a Detroit wage-laborer. Nonetheless, the ending is a happy one: the understated Rodriguez is fulfilled in his knowledge that he has made his mark as an artist and a performer. Not unlike the principles of the social revolution that failed to recognize Rodriguez for the icon that he was, the film prioritizes art and altruism over materialism. In the end, it’s all about the music, and the genuine passion of a true musician.
All in all, ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ is a fantastic cinematographic and journalistic endeavor. I would recommend it to anybody who craves a glimpse of how it sounded to be a young white student in South Africa during the 1970s, or simply those who wish to lose themselves for 90 minutes, within an extraordinary and spellbinding slice of musical history.
Keep it unreal.