***With the recent, tragic news of the passing of director Malik Bendjelloul off this mortal coil at only the age of 36, we thought it best to revisit his Academy Award winning documentary from 2012 that is the most enduring of love letters to artists and the fans who worship them.
Searching for Sugar Man is the perfect documentary film for Den of Geeksters to see, because it encapsulates and encompasses everything that makes us geek: it’s about the artist’s life and the fans’ lives, how they intersect (and don’t), and the price we all pay for leading them as devotedly as we do; it’s about the dreams of the artists we follow, and our own dreams of meeting those artists; and finally, it’s about the faith of both artist and fans being rewarded in ways we can never foresee or expect. The fact that’s it’s also a beautifully shot and directed documentary, with flourishes of artistic ingenuity and musical insight, is a bonus.
Sugar Man is the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a singer/songwriter/rock & roller from the streets of Detroit—literally (reports differ as to whether he was actually homeless)—who recorded two albums in the early ‘70s that bombed in America, but found a second life in, of all places, South Africa years later, becoming the soundtrack of its struggle against apartheid, and in the process creating a legend out of the mysterious Rodriguez, of whom nothing was known of his personal life—stories of his suicide by gunshot or self-immolation on stage were the most circulated—save the album cover photos and printed lyrics, runes pored over like the Dead Sea Scrolls for clues to their origins.
That’s where the white South Afrikaner fans come into the picture. Through dogged diligence and a persistence that should be the envy of all fans who’ve ever tried to personally contact their heroes, a record store owner in Capetown and a self-styled “musicologist detective” go on their transcontinental search for “Sugar Man” (named for one of Rodriguez’s signature songs), with the predictable closed doors and dead ends you’d expect to follow their quixotic quest.
But then, in the mid-Nineties, through the miracle of the internet (that had really just begun its ascendancy in world communication and culture), Rodriguez’s grown daughter caught wind of the search and posted about her father on the “Where’s Rodriguez?” website the South Africans had started, setting in motion the dreams of all involved to become tear-jerking reality: Rodriguez emerging from his self-imposed exile, travelling to South Africa and meeting his gob-smacked, stunned fans, and performing the sold-out arena shows in their country that had eluded him for almost thirty years in his own.
Of course, it’s ironic with a capital I that Rodriguez, an Hispanic-American writing from the streets in early ‘70s America, could never be heard on early ‘70s American radio. America wouldn’t allow a black man to be the king of rock & roll back then—as Dave Marsh said in his first Springsteen autobiography, Born to Run, “America couldn’t see that Hendrix was The One”—and certainly a Jose Feliciano-like “new Dylan” (with James Taylor tinges) would never have had a shot either (probably still doesn’t today, even in the age of crossover Hispanic stars Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, Shakira and J-Lo, none of whom would classify as male rock & rollers).
Yet even more ironic, the streets Rodriguez wrote about in socially-conscious songs like “Inner City Blues” and “Street Boy” (that appear on the film’s soundtrack album along with selections from Rodriguez’s two albums), depressed downtown Detroit, ended up underscoring the streets of Soweto instead, spawning rock & roll reverence of Rodriguez that birthed bands and brought down apartheid—much like the effect the banned Beatles had for decades on Russians living under Soviet censorship, giving succor to the underground pro-democracy movement that eventually melted the iron curtain (there’s a great documentary on that too, How The Beatles Rocked The Kremlin: http://www.thirteen.org/beatles/about/); Rodriguez’s records are shown to have the vinyl grooves of one of his most political songs scratched over by the South African censors.
Rodriguez’s folk-rock sound, abetted by orchestral and string arrangements, forecasts the sounds of Bruce Springsteen’s first two albums (both released in ’73, the same year as Rodriguez’s second), which, like his counterpart’s, were also unheard commercial failures that threatened to send Bruce into the same working class-oblivion of New Jersey that Rodriguez retreated to in downtown Detroit (working construction/demolition jobs).
Springsteen himself (along with Johns Prine and Hyatt) was pegged to be a “new Dylan” in the early ‘70s because, after Dylan emerged from his motorcycle accident in ‘69 and went country with albums John Wesley Harding and New Morning, the rock critic intelligentsia craved a replacement of the “old Dylan” (not even 30 years old at the time)—a new, more rock & roll Dylan they remembered from Dylan’s ’65-’66 rock heyday. Except the early ‘70s was now the era of the confessional, acoustic singer/songwriter, and neither Bruce’s E Street Band brand of rock nor Rodriguez’s Hispanic features fit into that demographic. But Springsteen, unlike his other journeyman band members who took day jobs, never lost faith in himself and his music.
Neither did Rodriguez. Contrary to the Mark Twain paraphrase that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated (from shooting himself in front of an audience to self- immolation on stage), Rodriguez lived on, and lived the ideals of the 1960s he emerged from, becoming involved in community affairs and running for local office, all while raising three daughters, all shown in the film as having become confident adult women, wise beyond their years. And just like their father, still in touch with their roots.
For Rodriguez, that means literally. Though resurrected and recording music like everyone wishes had happened to Elvis, Rodriguez is shown still living in the same downtown Detroit ramshackle apartment he lived in 40 years earlier (having given away all the money he’s earned in concerts and recordings since his rediscovery to family and friends), in between construction jobs still playing the guitar in his darkened room, much like the record producers who first discovered him, in the darkened juke joints on the outskirts of Detroit.