Cinema Review: Searching for Sugar Man

DIR: Malik Bendjelloul  PRO: Simon Chinn  DOP: Camilla Skagerström

There’s always been intrigue behind the mystery of the rock star who disappears from the limelight, be it the likes of Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson, or Nick Drake.

Malik Bendjelloul’s fascinating documentary Searching for Sugar Man concerns itself with a musician who seemed destined for Dylanesque stardom in America but never got it – but yet became as big as Elvis in South Africa, described as a ‘wandering spirit’ and ‘a prophet’.

In 1970 in Detroit, a Mexican-American singer-songwriter called Sixto Rodriguez (Sixto – he was the sixth child) recorded an album called Cold Fact. Produced by the legendary Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey, the critically-acclaimed album contained some beautiful music drenched in soulful funk and delivered with a heavenly voice belting out blue-collar, hippie-laced protest lyrics. According to music entrepreneur Clarence Avant, who signed Rodriguez to Sussex Records, it sold 6 copies.

Anyone who listens to David Holmes will be familiar with one of the tracks from Cold Fact, ‘Sugarman’ – a blissful ambiguous ode to escape –  that featured on Holmes’ 2002 album Come Get It I Got It and explains the title of the documentary.

After his second album Coming From Reality, with producer Steve Rowland, failed to sell Rodriguez was dropped from his label and starved of the commercial success his music deserved, he fell off the musical radar and remained virtually unknown. His sudden disappearance inspires this part-biopic/part-detective story documentary.

In an alternative reality his albums had become the soundtrack to a generation. In South Africa, his songs had become anti-apartheid anthems and his albums were as vital as The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, providing a soundtrack to the lives of many South Africans. A legend was built around his disappearance – with tales of him shooting himself on stage or finishing a show with an act of self-immolation. And so the documentary tracks how two South Africans – music-shop owner Stephen Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew – set about seeking out any information they can about the enigma that was Rodriguez, eventually leading them to a startling discovery.

It’s an incredible story and provides for a fine documentary that is somewhat undermined by the gaping holes throughout. Unfortunately it suffers from the (understandable) lack of archive footage and its animation fails to do justice to the music. There’s also the inability to delve into matters behind Rodriguez’ failure to achieve commercial success in America. And the filmmaker has taken liberties with certain facts – obviously to drive the dramatic narrative.

Nevertheless the film works purely because the story itself is so strong that it succeeds far beyond the telling. Best to avoid trailers and spoiler reviews and catch this beguiling documentary and hear the story for yourself for the first time.

Steven Galvin

86 mins

Searching for Sugar Man is released on 27th July 2012

Searching for Sugar Man – Official Website

The song ‘Sugarman’:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qh-99_1k3mE

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