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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.

While people seldom let the truth get in the way of a good story, this nearly universally acclaimed ‘documentary’ seems to have well and truly blurred the lines between fact and fiction.

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.

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5 comments so far..

  • artrush's avatar
    Commenter
    artrush
    Date and time
    Friday 08 Feb 2013 - 9:16 AM
    You're right that the film leaves out that he was quite famous in Australia in the late 70s and toured here. In a sense this is lying by omission-- but the film is about his relationship with South Africa so it makes a much better story if you leave Australia out.

    The record sales issue is interesting, and not very well explored, but to be honest I don't know how interesting complicated record contract clauses from 1970 would have been in a film.

    Also this bit confused me:

    "He toured Australia in 1979, 1981, 2007 and beyond... 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."

    The events of 'Searching for Sugar Man' take place in the late 90s. Why would him being on a soundtrack on 2006 and being here in 2007 be considered the "undocumented years"?

    In my opinion the film is much better off without an intimate look at his personal life. Rodriguez is obviously a shy kind of dude and I don't think he would've been comfortable sitting down to talk in depth about all his lyrics. As for why there are no black fans-- I wondered about that as well, but apparently his music was also quite popular in Zimbabwe and other neighbouring African countries. An interesting issue, but you can't cover everything.
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  • MATTHICKEY's avatar
    Commenter
    MATTHICKEY
    Date and time
    Friday 08 Feb 2013 - 10:27 AM
    Sorry, but this is a really terrible review. You pretty much summed it up with: "it isn’t the full story of Rodriguez’ life, music and rise to fame, it’s only half a one." The movie is, as the title suggests, about tracking him down. It's told from the perspective of the South African protagonists, not from Rodriguez's.

    For someone levelling accusations of laziness, you jump around in time conveniently, pointing out the Candy soundtrack and Bluesfest appearances, all of which occur outside of the chronology of the film.

    I really don't think you got the point of the film and the questions you raise throughout your review are irrelevant to it.
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  • Wally's avatar
    Commenter
    Wally
    Date and time
    Friday 08 Feb 2013 - 11:59 AM
    Who cares as to what kind of review the movie gets, all i can say is that iam glad to here that Sixto is well and still playing gigs, i saw him in the Early 80's and loved his show that much to this day my mates and i still talk about it and to be able to see him again in March some 30 + years later we can't wait, as for the movie haven't seen it but intend to but would prefer any artist live in person....
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  • Summer's avatar
    Commenter
    Summer
    Date and time
    Friday 01 Mar 2013 - 9:12 PM
    It's simply not honest to call "Searching for Sugar Man" a documentary. it manipulates the facts too much to be a true doc.

    The film-makers could have, instead, labeled it a dramatic movie "based on a true story". That would have provided them with the leeway to leave out those portions of history they have - including Rodriguez's high profile and success in the years he was supposedly entirely off the map.

    You are also correct in pointing out the deflection of questions about the business/sales aspects of the records is telling. Not only is it possible to trace such things as happened in South Africa, there's sales and activities that occurred - in Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica and elsewhere that help paint a truer portrait. That's if a documentary was the real goal.
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  • jackbequick's avatar
    Commenter
    jackbequick
    Date and time
    Sunday 09 Jun 2013 - 6:04 AM
    Great post.

    I agree that by calling it a documentary, I felt like I had watched a great, compelling story, but one that left me with WAY too many glaring questions.

    Not the least of which being that the film is based in two locations that are 80% black (Detroit and South Africa). In historical moments of great significance for the black community (Apartheid in S.A. and the rise of Motown and the 67 riots in Detroit). Where are the black people???
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