Searching for Sugar Man - ****
Directed by: Malik Bendjelloul
Review: The camera stares straight at him. Refusing to budge, it’s subject doesn’t make eye contact and wears sunglasses obscuring some of his face. We get the sense this man has worn these sunglasses nearly every day and night of his life. The most socially acceptable outward display of his humility is as much a part of him as the breathtaking songs that are contained within ‘Searching for Sugar Man.’
He continues to fidget and clasp together his collar with his hand. He is nervous and doesn’t like all the attention on him in his home. But this is only one portion of the man that is Sixto Rodriguez. A man who lives in a hovel in Detroit, MI and barely gets by, is a superstar on the other side of the world. If Rodriguez walks down the street in America he wouldn’t warrant a second glance. Even if he stopped you on the street and tried to tell you he was famous, you’d probably think of him as crazy. If he walked the streets in South Africa, he wouldn’t find a moments peace from people hounding him for autographs and pictures.
Many artists have been more popular overseas than they are in America, but not many have been completely unknown and retired without knowledge of their extreme popularity on the other side of the world. So disconnected was he from his fame, that legends grew in South Africa about his death. On stage suicide stories of him shooting himself in the head or lighting himself on fire ran rampant. Until one man decide to dig a little deeper into the man behind the myth.
A South African music journalist wanted to get behind all the different stories of Rodriguez and find out what really happened. What he discovered was more than he ever could have asked for. He found out that the man behind the legends was still alive and well and had no idea what he was about to learn.
This documentary is about that exploration of the man and what he meant to a country that went through so much to obtain the freedoms many of us take for granted.
Rodriguez started playing music in a time when Bob Dylan was ruling the folk music scene. As popular as Dylan was it’s amazing Rodriguez had as difficult of time as he did. Their styles are incredibly similar, a sort of musical poetry with a message, that you would have thought he would have caught on somehow. But alas, it wasn’t to be.
In America anyway.
When a bootlegged copy of his album reached South Africa, it connected with an audience in the way many thought it would in America. The youngsters rallying against Apartheid in the country latched on to his music as an anthem. Rodriguez’ album swept across the country and the artist had no clue as to his newfound popularity.
It’s a fascinating story, but only more so when the man himself is revealed. Often times musicians and stars try to humble. They put on a facade of humility because they know it makes the more endearing but its not their true character. Upon meeting Rodriguez it’s apparent he doesn’t belong in such a group.
Rodriguez is a man who is entirely genuine. Humbled by the world and not his successes or failures he has found enjoyment in all that he has done. His music career didn’t take off and he isn’t a star, but he found things in life to make him happy and chose to focus on those things.
Even after realizing his popularity in South Africa and returning for a sold out concert, he remained unchanged. The ‘Sugar Man’ himself stayed true to who he was. Yet, when confronted with unaccustomed popularity, he handled it all with the savvy and grace that you would normally expect out of someone who had been doing it for years.
‘Searching for Sugar Man’ is intriguing for the story it tells, but is great for the man it reveals. Few movies this year will leave you as impacted or emotional as ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ and it could not be recommended more highly.