Searching for Sugar Man

Film review by © Jane Freebury

Born in the same year as Jimi Hendrix, singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez turned 70 this year. The music careers of both men burned briefly in the 1970s however Rodriguez’s has miraculously come back to life and is the subject of this remarkable musical detective story by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul.

Rodriguez? No, I hadn’t heard of him either until recently, though his haunting signature song, Sugar Man, is faintly familiar. He released two albums early in the 1970s, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, but never got to make a third when he was dropped by his record label. So he took up blue collar construction work where he could find it in his hometown of Detroit.

Where did the extravagant rumours of Rodriguez’s suicide on stage come from? That he’d shot himself, that he’d set himself on fire. Is it something to blame on a certain cultish disposition of the times when he disappeared from view? The man himself lives simply, has helped bring up three daughters and studied philosophy at university after his musical career finally folded.

Clearly he was done over by the music industry. If he is bitter over the lost royalties, we would never know. Somehow, as we shuttle between the US and South Africa the many superb location shots, some beautifully photographed with time lapse, and some gorgeous CG animation recreations lend aspiration and dignity to what must have sometimes been a hard slog.

Rodriguez’s songs meantime took on a life of their own. Far from the home of Motown and Ford Motor company, his music took off in the troubled state of South Africa where its counter-cultural, anti-establishment messages had deep resonance among white liberal youth trying to divest themselves of an ugly apartheid regime.

It would have been better to hear more of this music on the soundtrack, to share the experience and understand what it represented. A bit too long is spent on the talking heads of record producers, other musicians, journalists and too little time allowed to the music to speak for itself.

At the height of his popularity in South Africa, tracks were banned—sharp implements crudely applied to vinyl—but still Rodriguez managed to become bigger than Elvis and the Stones there, and was apparently right up there with the Beatles. The connection that Rodriguez’s music built, entirely without his knowledge, with the forces for change there in the 1970s, is a minor miracle.

The doco doesn’t mention that his work also had some following here in Australia, where he has toured and will tour again soon. It’s a slightly annoying omission, but it need not detract from an astonishing story of a superstar who had no idea how his music had contributed to social change in a country far, far away.

In a capsule: The story of a modest superstar who had no idea how his music contributed to social change in a country faraway. Gorgeously made and with a subject entirely worthy of our attention, though the music itself could have done with more airing.

4 stars