Searching For Sugar Man: myth-making at its best?
By Rebecca L. Stewart
Pushed as one of the serious contenders for best documentary Oscar this year, Searching for Sugar Man is the story of the folk music hero that never was; a rags-to-rags fable of one the most original voices of the sixties and seventies reduced to laboring on building sites. Sixto Rodriguez: a major star and hero in South Africa (unbeknownst to him), a man so mysterious he was rumoured to have self-immolated on stage. What happened to him? If only two music geeks would hunt him down and resurrect him from the ashes!
Like many who enjoyed Sugar Man I raced to Guitar Tabs online to learn some of his beautiful, intriguing chords, and skedaddled to the record store to buy his only two albums. But I am not a serious music lover with a degree in one-upmanship. I am not an investigative journalist. I am, however, a fan of something known as ‘the world wide web’, and another thing known as ‘the independent music store’, and after a bit of minor digging I found that Sugar Man raises more questions than it answers.
The myth begins with two record producers from Sussex Records discovering Rodriguez in a dingy Detroit bar in 1969. The soulful folk/blues performer is too shy to face his audience, but the producers see enough of Dylan in him to help record his first album Cold Fact, which instantly flops in the States. The second, Coming From Reality in 1971 does the same, and Rodriguez is dropped from the label to fade into obscurity. In the meantime, Cold Fact gets picked up in South Africa (at that time politically and culturally isolated by a worldwide trade embargo), spread via word-of-mouth and pirated copies. With little information getting in or out of the country and rumours abounding, many South African fans believe their hero, as ubiquitous in any music collection as the Beatles, to be dead.
Sugar Man’s Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul picks up the tale here, following journo Craig Bartholomew Strydom and music store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman on their quest to find out what happened. The film follows all the archetypal phases of the mythic journey – from the call to adventure, crossing the threshold, descent to the underworld and ultimately the resurrection – to Sugar Man’s emotional conclusion, his ‘comeback’ concert in Cape Town in 1998. To all the family, friends and fans involved, it’s a fitting denouement.
The main puzzle Sugar Man doesn’t solve is record sales. Why don’t we find out why Rodriguez or his record companies didn’t know about the astounding sales or megastar status enjoyed in South Africa for years and years? Was it a genuine oversight (of the sort that happens to many back catalogues) after Sussex Records was dissolved? Or was it something more? According to interviews with the director, many factors contributed to this curious lapse, and he’s overtly stated “the story really isn’t about money.” The missing record sales and Rodriguez’ innocence of his worldwide fame is, however, the central premise of the documentary. Beyond asking Sussex Records’ Clarence Avant (who conveniently brushes it aside), more scientific prospecting could have revealed some gold.
Despite all the lonely images of him walking Detroit’s snow-blasted streets, it transpires that Rodriguez performed quite regularly through the years. He was also a huge star in Australia, touring regularly and going five times platinum at a time when, according to the doco, the trail went cold. Fans in other southern African countries and New Zealand weren’t exactly indifferent to him either.
He toured Australia in 1979, 1981, 2007 and beyond, with the Mark Gillespie Band and Midnight Oil, and for the East Coast Blues & Roots Festival. Local label Blue Goose Music released a bunch of his music in the mid-‘70s, and based on his Aussie performances, they also released the album Alive (the title a play on his rumoured death). The song ‘Sugar Man’ featured on the soundtrack of Heath Ledger’s Candy in 2006. It seems we can’t get rid of the bloke, but if you take the doco – and Jung – at face value, the undocumented years were Rodriguez’ katabasis.
Apartheid is lightly hoisted, then lowered again, as a convenient narrative distraction. This horrendous chapter of South African history has shaped much of their culture, art and music. If Rodriguez is and was so huge in South Africa – a country with over 80 per cent of the population black African – why was there not a single black face in the massive crowd he drew for his ‘comeback concert’? Or interviewed for the doco? Sugar Man portrays Cold Fact as the proud voice of anti-apartheid at that time – but just for indignant Afrikaaners, am I right? Just a few words to put this in context for the non-South Africans in the audience (i.e. most of us) could have been helpful.
Some other unasked questions point to the general sloppiness of the filmmaking. Why is Rodriguez never seen without his dark glasses? Why, with so many of his children interviewed, and so many of his songs about his personal experiences, was there no discussion about his wife or any other significant relationships in his life? Why is Rodriguez reluctant to talk much about his songs, his actual music? Once the filmmaker had this living legend in the palm of his hand, did he think that more insight into his actual music and creativity might have made for more illuminating viewing?
Further obscuring the origins of the story is the Hornby-stye frothing about musical minutiae, by everyone but our reluctant hero. Much hoo-haa is made of the ‘amazingness’ of the saga by the two protagonists. They seem astonished about the lack of online references detailing the greatness of Rodriguez, that is, until they posted their own sites looking for anyone who knew him. This was 1997, people! There were about 100,000 websites in total. They would have searched for Rodriguez using Netscape Navigator, on a Compaq, with a 56k modem. Their claim that Rodriguez “just wasn’t about” is like saying that they walked into Cape Town’s central library, couldn’t find a book on the death of Martin Luther King, and concluded that he was still alive.
While it all seems very slack, maybe the lack of context is deliberate. Much of the music industry is built on myth-making – from ‘Paul is dead’ to everything that Jack White ever said – so can we blame Bendjelloul for drawing a gauzy curtain over the annoying bits n’ bobs? Rather than resorting to the usual tactics of documentary: research, libraries, interviewing a wide variety of sources (boring!), far more in Sugar Man is made of hearsay. Much of it hinges on the earnest searches of the two, let’s face it, fans, who are quick to point out that every South African has their own take on Rodriguez – from the girl who played Cold Fact to her boyfriend and spawned a million bootleg copies, to the stage suicide stories.
It’s fantastic that this film has brought this phenomenal talent to a much broader audience. But it isn’t the full story of Rodriguez’ life, music and rise to fame, it’s only half a one. You have to wonder, though, if Searching For Sugar Man is a lazy bit of filmmaking – or just the perfect catalyst for the Rodriguez myth to flourish on a grander, more cinematic scale.
Rebecca is a freelance writer and editor. She strums and rails here.