Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man

The documentary Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of pop folk singer Sixto Rodriguez, usually known by the single name Rodriguez, from Detroit.

As the film presents it, Rodriguez recorded a small amount of music in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The minimal critical attention it received was positive, but sales were almost non-existent. That seemed to be the end of any serious career in music for Rodriguez. He moved on to a life of various low-paying construction and other physical labor jobs.

Meanwhile, as he remained in obscurity in Detroit, somehow his music was introduced to South Africa and became huge. He and his politically conscious music became a symbol amongst white liberals of resistance to the apartheid regime and the struggle for social justice. His records were passed around and listened to over and over, surreptitiously when necessary as he became identified with the fight against the government.

He, though, had no idea of any of this. He received no word of his popularity in South Africa (nor much if anything in the way of royalties for overseas sales—the implication is that he was very likely cheated). In South Africa it was rumored that he had died, probably by suicide, but for the most part they knew nothing about Rodriguez the man except the music he created that they loved.

Much of the film is about two South Africans—big Rodriguez fans—who decided in the late ’90s to find out anything they could about his life and how he had died. It was a long and arduous process, as the few leads they obtained seemed to quickly dry up. But eventually they discovered, to their surprise and delight, that he was still very much alive. They were able to contact him, and soon Rodriguez was performing in concert in post-apartheid South Africa, and receiving a hero’s reception.

Rodriguez is presented as a very humble fellow, very much unchanged by the discovery that there is a country where he is massively popular. He had no inclination to change his working class existence, remaining in Detroit, living the way he had for the decades preceding the extraordinary South Africa events. He was grateful for his fans’ adulation, but he loved his art over material success or fame, and he declined to act the part of the big shot.

Searching for Sugar Man held my interest throughout, and I definitely enjoyed it. I was into it enough that I was inspired to do a fair amount of reading about Rodriguez online after seeing the film.

My conclusion from that reading is that the filmmakers likely made some compromises to “improve” the story, a bit more than is the case with the typical documentary.

It’s certainly not that they made the whole thing up, or even that they make provably untrue claims in the film. It’s more a matter of a little exaggeration here and a little omission there to oversimplify the story and shape it into the kind of inspiring crowd pleaser they’re aiming for. That’s the impression I got, anyway.

The movie’s probably accurate about his early lack of success in his own country. It’s probably mostly accurate about his popularity in South Africa, though there may be a little embellishing there.

I read an interesting post about that on an online forum from someone from South Africa. For what it’s worth—and I know random Internet posts are often worth precisely nothing—the poster pooh poohed the notion prominent in the movie that Rodriguez songs were some sort of anti-apartheid anthems in South Africa, that they were politically significant. He wrote that while Rodriguez’s popularity was real—if a bit overstated in the movie—the majority of people just liked his music as music. Just as a lot of people liked Beatles music as music, without thereby endorsing whatever political or counterculture messages other people might attribute to Beatles music, or conservatives embraced Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Political lyrics are easily ignored, or twisted to mean what you’d prefer they mean.

It’s interesting that the footage of him performing in South Africa shows an audience that to me looked like mostly college age kids (with few if any non-whites; I guess he has little crossover appeal). I would have thought that if he was such a big deal decades earlier to anti-apartheid activists and other politically aware folks, the audience would have been mostly in their 40s and older.

Maybe the biggest thing left out of the movie is that a lesser version of what happened in South Africa had happened earlier in Australia. After Rodriguez stopped recording because of his failure to sell many records in the U.S., he was told that his music had caught on in Australia and sold fairly well there, or at least better than at home. He even then toured Australia, with some success.

Perhaps the moviemakers felt that the South Africa boom would have less impact if the audience knew it had been preceded by an Australian boomlet.

Rodriguez’s wife appears in the movie, but only briefly. (Come to think of it, I don’t remember if she’s identified as his wife, or if she could have been a girlfriend and I just assumed it was his wife.) It seemed a little odd that more wasn’t said about her.

In my reading, I found that maybe his marital situation wasn’t explored more because it’s complex enough to potentially distract from the story they’re telling. He’s been married twice, and has kids with both wives. He’s still technically married to his second wife, but they don’t live together. He stayed in Detroit and she moved out to the suburbs.

As far as how humble and unchanged he is, again the movie seems to be roughly accurate, but a little simplistic or exaggerated. It’s true he still lives in the same crummy house in Detroit, and that he gives away a lot of what money he makes to friends and family. But once he achieved some success and got modestly back in the limelight, he quit his blue collar construction jobs, and he’s toured not only in South Africa but in this country as well.

I had the sense while watching the movie that it wasn’t providing as much information as it could, that it wasn’t answering some obvious questions. It’s possible that that was an artistic decision, that they wanted their main character to remain a kind of shadowy, mysterious figure of myth.

For example, the movie doesn’t address what’s up with his eyes. He usually is shown wearing dark glasses, occasionally regular glasses, and only quite rarely no glasses (and on those occasions he’s shot from far away, or he’s squinting severely or has his eyes closed). Is he blind? Does he have some lesser vision problem?

In my reading, I learned that he has glaucoma and is nearly blind. But that’s mostly been an issue in recent years. It explains the present, but from the few photos we see of him from the ’60s and ’70s, it looks like he already favored that same dark glasses image.

The interviews in the movie are not pursued aggressively, which again could reflect an artistic decision, though it could also be an indication that the filmmakers got only limited cooperation. For example, the head of a record company who made plenty of money from the sales of Rodriguez records in South Africa is evasively indignant when asked if Rodriguez himself got paid what he should have, but there’s no follow up—the matter is dropped.

Most notably, Rodriguez himself is unforthcoming in his interviews. He comes across as a shy, self-effacing guy. He gives only brief answers, and he’s not pressed for more.

It makes it hard to get any sense of who he is or what he’s like at a deeper level. He seems at the very least eccentric. Is he brain damaged? By drug use? Does he have some kind of childlike, Michael Jackson, never-really-grew-up quality to him? At times one gets the vague impression he’s of the “holy idiot” type.

Still, this is a fun story about what a thrill it was for these South African blokes to track down their hero, and how he was then mobbed like a superstar when they got him to come to their country.

It’s striking to be reminded how primitive research was before the Internet was big, before Google. Then again, it’s possible the filmmakers are fudging here too, exaggerating the difficulty. Couldn’t they have more easily learned about him and tracked him down by going through the record company that produced his work? That was A&M, a huge outfit, for at least one of his albums. I would think they’d have the resources to help in the search, if they didn’t already know where he was.

By the way, from what we hear of it in the movie, I think I’d like his music at least some, but it didn’t win me over in a big way. By way of contrast, when I saw A Skin Too Few, the documentary about Nick Drake (whom I’d not previously heard of), I immediately put his music on my list of CDs to buy.

Oh, and “Sugar Man” is the title of one of Rodriguez’s songs, but it’s a song in the third person about a drug dealer he knew, not a first person song about himself. So referring to him by that nickname, like in the title of this movie, doesn’t really fit. It’s not like calling John Lennon “the Walrus,” but instead like calling him “Doctor Robert.”

Overall, I liked Searching for Sugar Man, and I liked Rodriguez. He seems like an odd but decent guy. It just seems like he’s left too mysterious for someone they did indeed find, and who was willing to be interviewed on camera.

I recommend this documentary, but not with as much enthusiasm as I’ve seen from most reviewers.