Searching for Sugar Man is one of the most powerful, life-affirming films to come out in a long time. The documentary tells the story of a talented musician who cut a couple of records in the early 70’s that were well received critically yet failed to sell at all in the States. The musician – Rodriguez – disappeared shortly after finishing his second record seemingly fading into oblivion. If this was the whole story then it would be one of the millions of hard luck stories about the music industry.
Except the story doesn’t end there.
Rodriguez was a urban street poet who sang like Dylan and Nick Drake with music reminiscent of Love. His two records Cold Fact and Coming From Reality made their way in the early 70’s to South Africa via a backpacker, as the legend goes. They were bootlegged relentlessly until the got official releases in South Africa. His first record Cold Fact became a seminal record in the country, especially in the underground music movement there. His music influenced many of the young South African musicians who took to his anti-establishment message as an anti-dote to life under Apartheid.
With scant information and only the enigmatic image of Rodriguez sitting cross-legged like a hippie shaman in shades on the sleeve of the album, the mystery of Rodriguez deepened. Without the ease of access to information that we have today it was near impossible to track down any details on him. Eventually a rumor surfaced that Rodriguez died in a suicide on stage either by shooting himself or lighting himself on fire. The rumor only added to the mystery. That tall tale stuck until two South Afrikaners – Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom – increased their search to find information on whatever happened to Rodriguez. Stephen setup a website while Craig tried to track him down by investigating all of the credited names on the two albums.
After Apartheid finally ended in South Africa, the case of the missing Rodriguez took a huge turn in the late 90’s. That was only the beginning of the story as the film shows. To go any further into this story is to wander into SPOILER territory. To do that would be a huge disservice to this amazing film. What happens in the late 90’s is further proof of the old adage:
Truth is stranger than fiction.
Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul spent several years working on Searching for Sugar Man. He heard the tale of Rodriguez from Stephen Segerman back in 2006 and he couldn’t quite believe the story. Bendjelloul’s film has a lot of standard talking heads interviews along with a few intriguing animated sequences. The interviews continue to deepen the mystery as Bendjelloul starts in South Africa and works his way back to America to talk with the producers of Rodriguez’s two albums. All of them are still stunned to this day that Rodriguez did not make it back in the early 70’s. You can sense their regret and hurt at the fact that he seemed to slip through the cracks of the music industry only to vanish without much of a trace. The film also serves as something of a nostalgia trip back into the recent past where someone could just disappear and not be found very easily back in the days before the internet and social media.
Searching for Sugar Man has been nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary this year. It is easily one of the best documentaries of the last twenty-five years. it’s a film that is a gripping mystery story that unfolds into a tale that is heart-breaking and deeply powerful. It is HIGHLY recommended that everyone sees this film. It stands as a testament to the human will while reminding us of the power of cinema.