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DVD Review: Searching for Sugarman

January 6, 2013

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


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In today’s digital world, you would think you would know if you had sold over 500,000 records in a country, even if it was thousands of miles away. Well, that is exactly what happened to Rodriguez, a 1970’s Mexican-American folksinger who while failing to make a ripple in the American music scene, became an icon unbeknownst to him in South Africa, and that is exactly the subject of the phenomenal documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. Despite being a brilliant singer-songwriter – some of his producers compared him to Bob Dylan – Rodriguez remained hidden, well except in an apartheid-riddled African nation. Yes, it does sound like another one of the ‘hoax’ ‘documentaries’ that have passed by our screens in recent years, such as Catfish and I’m Still Here, yet this is all true.

Searching for Sugar Man follows two Cape Town fans, a record storeowner and a journalist, and their 3-year quest in putting together the puzzle pieces that was Rodriguez’s life. In the 1970’s, the mysterious musician had a short-lived career, releasing two albums but never achieving the popularity that was predicted of him. Afterwards, Rodriguez Sixto got on with life as a modest construction worker and community leader in Detroit, Michigan. But his music had reached far beyond the smoky Detriot bars, for his counter-culture songs, which discussed love, poverty, sex and drugs, found an audience within the underground anti-apartheid white Afrikaans crowd (how his music made it to the country is still a mystery). His music became a symbol of rebellion, so much so that the censors scratched out tracks on his vinyls so they could not be aired. Although he became wildly popular in the African nation, where his records were more popular than the Rolling Stones little was known about the man behind the music. Rumours of suicide, supposedly through self-immolation on stage, were abound across his fans, and added to the myth.

The journey in putting together what happened to the mysterious star is the one of the most heartening, sweet and bizarre stories you’ll hear this year, one that goes beyond anyone’s initial expectations. It goes beyond being a simple ‘music documentary’, like those of The Rolling Stones and U2; rather it is one of the best films of the year, exemplified by the financial backing it received from British producer Simon Chinn, the man behind the wonderful Man on Wire and Project Nim. As said near its end, the documentary’s subject is representative of the human spirit; it will restore anyone’s faith in the meaning and power of documentary. And the message underlying it all is beautiful – to every artist who feels unappreciated, that although they might never know the impact of their work, it can change people’s lives across the world. And as for an even happier ending to a story that had been tragic for so long, Sony have recently announced that it is re-releasing Rodriguez’s two albums.

Searching for Sugar Man is the Winner of the Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and is out now on DVD in the UK. Extras include a 30-minute ‘making-of’, which features the challenge director Malik Bendjelloul faced in funding the film.  

Oliver Smith.