SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (2012)
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul
Sony Picture Classics, 86 minutes, PG-13
* * * * *
This documentary may be the best film of 2012, even though it may also be a bit of a put-on. At the very least, it’s one of the better films dealing with social class in recent memory.
The film opens in South Africa, where white Afrikaners that opposed the oppressive white-led regime speak of the various things that gave them courage in the bleak days before apartheid withered away in 1994. Young people were especially inspired by two albums that made their way from the United States: Cold Fact (1970) and Coming from Reality (1971). Both were on the blacklist, yet everyone knew the records. They were so influential that white South Africans assumed that the man who wrote and performed the songs, Sixto Rodriguez, was a superstar in America. Except, he wasn’t. In fact, the very record that went gold in South Africa when they were reissued in 1991 sold in the tens in the United States and Rodriguez was so obscure that he dropped from sight. In South Africa, though, various legends sprouted. Nearly all ended in Rodriguez’s death—either in prison where he was sent for murdering his wife; or from suicide on stage (either by shooting himself or by setting himself afire.) Musicians idolized Rodriguez, fans spread fanciful stories, and producers nicknamed themselves “Sugar Man,” the title of a favored track about drug dealers on the mean streets of America. After apartheid collapsed, Rodriguez’s albums were officially released in South Africa, his fame was rekindled, and everyone knew about him. Except, they didn’t! No one knew anything about the man at all–just the songs. He was an album photo–a man who appeared to be Latino, though he wrote and sang like Bob Dylan. The mystique about Rodriguez led devotees to take up the task of telling the “true” story of their hero. But they faced a huge problem: nobody seemed to know anything about him after 1971. It was as if the man disappeared from the planet. Put simply, the legends were thicker than Rodriguez’s known biography.
So what does any music fanatic do in such a situation? He combs lyrics for clues and begins to follow the melodic crumbs. The first surprise was that the Mexican-American Rodriguez didn’t hail from the Southwest or California; he was from Detroit. The second revelation was even bigger–he wasn’t/isn’t dead. One of Rodriguez’s daughters spied a website created in South Africa and, in 1998, Rodriguez learned of his acclaim (and robust sales) in South Africa. Where had he been? In Detroit, appropriately enough, as that’s where a lot of American dreams go to die. He was an everyday blue-collar working stiff who did demolition work, lived/lives in a squalid inner-city house, and made do with the hand life dealt–not so romantic, but oh-so-real. Maybe!
Director Malik Bendjelloul can’t quite bring himself to abandon the legend. He shows us Rodriguez’s triumphant tours of South Africa and intersperses the film’s second half with interviews with the man, coworkers, and his daughters, but aspects of Rodriguez and his life remain mysterious. There is, for instance, no mention of a mother to his children. (Rumors hold that he has been married twice.) Equally enigmatic is what happened to all the royalty money earned in South Africa that was dutifully sent to his long-defunct record company. And perhaps most puzzling of all is Rodriguez’s calm acceptance of everything that happened. In fact, the man who penned songs loaded with symbolism vacillates between nonchalance and inarticulation on camera. He is either one of the world’s great Stoics, or he’s in cahoots with Bendjelloul to keep alive the Rodriguez legend. Still another possibility–he is as he appears to be: a guy who had a brief shot at fame, moved on when it didn’t work out, and became another unknown victim of the hidden injuries of class. In the end, the film’s disturbing images of Detroit squalor leaves more impact than his songs. (They are quite good, but they were also overproduced in the way that ruined a lot of records released in the early 70s--maudlin strings, contrived drama, studio whistles and bells….) Detroit is Michael Moore’s Flint writ larger and stripped of humor and hope.
I can’t tell you how much of this documentary is real–other than Detroit is every bit as awful as it’s made out to be–but whether the Rodriguez back-story as told here is completely true, half true, or inventive, it’s a helluva tale. In fact, it’s such a good yarn that I want it to be true. America is long overdue for a genuine working-class hero. --Rob Weir