Searching for Sugar Man

Rodriguez. Know the name? Probably not, but that's about to change.

Some things are known about him. Much is not. Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore discovered Rodriguez playing in Detroit bars, and comparing him to Dylan, secured a record contract and produced his first album, Cold Fact in 1970. Coming From Reality  followed in 1971. Both were expected to do well critically and commercially, but flopped with the public. After those disappointments, what exactly became of Rodriguez is something of a mystery, though apparently he largely dropped out of the music scene, worked as a manual laborer in his native Detroit, and had a family. During this absence from the public eye, bootlegged copies of his records came to be widely disseminated in South Africa. Somehow, a Mexican-American electric folkie's music came to represent the political and cultural aspirations of Afrikaners opposed to apartheid, and though barely anything was known about Rodriguez (the country didn't even have broadcast television during this era), his music became incredibly popular.

In 1991 both records were released officially in that country. A few years later one of Rodriguez's daughters stumbled upon a website dedicated to him run by a South African fan named Steve "Sugar" Segerman, who had been trying to learn what became of the singer, now a cultural icon in that country. Contact was soon established and in 1998 Rodriguez went to South Africa for the first time for a successful tour which drew large, adoring audiences.

This is the story told in Malik Bendjelloul's documentary Searching for Sugar Man, which focuses on Segerman's search and the resulting trip to South Africa. Bendjelloul also interviews Coffey and Theodore, whose enthusiasm for Rodriguez's music remains palpable forty years later, as does their disappointment that he never reached a wider audience at home. Also interviewed are the record label executives behind the original American releases and their re-release in South Africa. In the U.S. the album was released on Sussex- a lable run by Clarence Avant which folded in the mid 70's. Avant claims to have no idea where the money from the South African sales went, though the South African label says the royalties were paid to Sussex. While Avant is pressed hard in the film to the point where his responses grow testy, his South African counterpart is largely left off the hook to answer for where all the money from an album that went platinum. The film makes it clear that Rodriguez, who has lived in the same grubby, run-down apartment for over forty years, never got any of it.

Searching for Sugar Man certainly creates an aura of mystery around Rodriguez and whets the viewer's appetite for more of his music- and for more details of his story, which never arrive. It raises a whole host of questions it never answered in the film: Where did the money go? Why did Rodriguez stop making music? Who is the mother of these daughters and what was this family like? Why does no one speak of her? What are these dark things the daughters are alluding to about their father's personality? What are his plans for the future? Who is this guy? But the fact that one wants to know more about his subject is a sign of success for the filmmaker.

Do we need to know these things in order for the film to work? No, it works well enough on the strength of Rodriguez's music, the nature of the story, and its adherence to a classic narrative arc. Bendjelloul knows what he's doing. But that internet thing, which was responsible for connecting the artist to an audience without which he would have known nothing about, poses problems, as I suspect almost everyone who sees this film is going to go online after watching it to learn more about its subject. There they will find  Bendjelloul has left out some noteworthy parts of the story. A lot of parts actually, which in retrospect make the film seem slightly disingenuous in how it presents its subject's career. Does that change the quality or merit of the film itself? I'll let you decide how you feel about that, but would strongly suggest you look up Rodriguez's career after seeing the film, and only suggest a more comprehensive approach, including the missing chapters from its subject's career, could have made a good film into a great one- and that's a cold fact.

For the most part Rodriguez's music has held up incredibly well. To coincide with the film's release, Rodriguez is about to embark on a U.S. tour, which wraps up on September 29 at Bimbo's in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale now for what could be a very intriguing show. The film's soundtrack is now available on Sony, or you can hear the original Sussex albums on MOG.

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