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Searching for Sugar Man

I’m now back from break well ahead of schedule. I had every intention of using this opportunity to see The Master, Dredd, or any of the other great films that came out while I was away, but there’s something I need to address first. It’s a film that I had passed on initially, but I need to cover it now. Why? Mostly because one of my correspondents loved the film so much that he threatened to physically drag me to the Fox Tower, and I didn’t feel strongly enough about the film one way or another to argue the point.

Well, it’s a good thing I value my friend’s opinion so much, because Searching for Sugar Man was indeed marvelous.

The title refers to “Sugar Man,” the first track off an obscure 1970 album called “Cold Fact.” The artist who recorded that album was listed by multiple names, but he was known primarily as “Rodriguez.” He went on to make another album, “Coming From Reality,” which bombed just as badly. He then made it partway through a third album before dropping off the map entirely.

In theory, making a documentary about such a subject sounds like it could be very intriguing. In practice, what could such a film talk about? Nobody knows anything about Rodriguez, his career went absolutely nowhere, and precious few photos of him exist. During the film’s opening minutes, it can only offer us interviews with such legendary music producers as Dennis Coffey and Steve Rowland (former Motown CEO Clarence Avant also appears later on), who had the privilege of working with Rodriguez. Each and every one of them list Rodriguez among the greatest artists they ever worked with, setting him equal to — if not superior to — Bob Dylan. High praise, to be sure, but none of these producers seem to have known Rodriguez all that well, and they aren’t exactly articulate. As such, these interviews can’t possibly hope to adequately describe what a talent Rodriguez was, and they certainly can’t give us a look into his mind or his history.

To be fair, the film does offer some very interesting visual touches. The animated segments are outstanding, as they damn well should be: This film was co-produced by Passion Pictures, the company responsible for a huge chunk of the Gorillaz’ music videos. That said, the early flourishes come off as padding. The visual touches do nothing to advance any story, mostly because there apparently isn’t much of a story to be told. As a result, these inventive touches come off as pretentious.

But then, fifteen minutes in, someone finally asks the multimillion-dollar question. Rodriguez was such a talented musician, he was a genius at songwriting, he had some of the best producers and managers in the business, and yet his career was still an abject failure. The man had everything going in his favor, yet he still couldn’t sell an album or get a minute of radio play. How does such a thing happen? It’s a fascinating question, and one that any pop culture enthusiast would constantly grapple with.

At long last, this film had me on board. But I could never have guessed that the movie was just preparing to go in another direction entirely.

See, Rodriguez’ album came out at the height of Apartheid. South Africa was enforcing racial inequality with an iron fist, and any protest against it was punishable by law. These practices were met with countless international sanctions, which only made th South African government even more indignant and the country even more isolated.

Yet somehow — nobody is sure how, exactly — a copy of “Cold Fact” found its way into South Africa.

In very short order, Rodriguez’ subversive lyrics struck a chord with the oppressed peoples of South Africa. The government made it illegal to play “Sugar Man,” going so far as to physically scratch out the track on whatever vinyl copies came into the country. Naturally, this made the track and the album even more popular. Copies and bootlegs soon became ubiquitous, particularly in more liberal households. Rodriguez’ music introduced the dangerous notion that it was okay to rail against authority, and the people of South Africa responded in kind. His became the sound of a country-wide revolution, and countless musicians in the country took up their instruments to keep his style and his values alive.

Over the decades, Rodriguez has become more popular in South Africa than the Rolling Stones and Elvis put together. His albums have sold thousands upon thousands of copies. Not that this enormous success ever led to a comeback in the States, though. After all, what record exec ever gave a shit about some underground movement way over in South Africa? There’s also the question of where the royalty money is going. Somebody must be getting rich off of all the copies being circulated, but nobody seems to be quite sure who. Rodriguez himself sure as hell hasn’t seen a cent of it, which leads to another interesting mystery.

Information about Rodriguez is hard enough to come by in his own native country, much less half a world away. The man had attained tremendous fame in South Africa, but no one there knew much of anything about him. Inevitably, Rodriguez became the center of countless urban legends. Some say that he died of a drug overdose in prison. Others claim that he committed suicide onstage, either by self-immolation or by a gun to his head. And those are just the rumors about his death. The movie doesn’t even address the rumors about his birth, though I’d have loved to hear those.

Anyway, sometime in the ’90s, a couple of particularly devoted Rodriguez fanatics (one of whom is actually nicknamed “Sugarman”) decided to set out and find the truth for themselves. They try following the royalty money and getting in touch with the record labels. They put up a website to ask the world for any solid leads. They even comb through the lyrics of Rodriguez’ songs, looking for clues in geographical references.

In the end, they did indeed learn what happened to Rodriguez. I’m loathe to spoil exactly what they found, except to say that the movie only gets better and better from there.

However, I will say that the film carries the implicit question of whether or not the investigation should continue. Maybe it would be better for Rodriguez to continue as a counter-culture symbol as opposed to some flawed and fallible man. Moreover, maybe there’s a reason he was so reclusive to begin with, and maybe those wishes should be respected. Hell, the man has been treated like a reject for so much of his life, who’s to say he would know what to do with superstardom? Then again, maybe he deserves to know that he had such a profound influence on so many people.

In spite of its slow opening, Searching for Sugar Man is a phenomenal movie. It’s a very inspirational portrait of a man who couldn’t catch a lucky break to save his life, yet he never stopped trying with all his might to make the world a better place in any way he could. It’s also the very intriguing story of a man who unwittingly affected an entire nation, carving out two completely separate lives without ever knowing it. Last but not least, it’s a film that celebrates the power and influence of music, while implicitly delivering some potent barbs to the American recording industry.

If you can’t see this film (and I wholeheartedly recommend you do), at least get to YouTube and listen to Rodriguez’ music. Even if the man couldn’t find success back in 1970, his music is still great today and Rodriguez deserves whatever fame and fortune this movie brings him. Better late than never, I suppose.

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