After Marley and CloClo were released just a couple of months ago, I felt like the gap for documentaries on musical icons had been filled. That was until Searching for Sugarman came along. Its mysterious hero is Sixto Rodriguez, a man who became a rock n roll legend in Africa in the ’70s, but a nobody everywhere else. His undiscovered genius, lyrically comparable to the likes of Bob Dylan, makes for some exciting subject matter. Exploring his incredible life takes the viewer all the way to the grave, and beyond.
It is difficult to trace the life of an American man no one has heard of in America, but one journalist and one avid record collector are attempting it and the documentary follows their search for sugarman. They both want to find out why his music can’t be found in any record stores, and unravel the mystery behind his death- did he really set himself on fire on stage? By interviewing them, and Rodriguez’s daughters, all to the sound of his music (you’ll to buy the soundtrack), the story becomes a discovery for the viewer as well as a revelation for its interviewees.
The story starts in Detroit in 1970, where a man in dark glasses had been singing about drugs in bars. His first album “Cold Fact” was picked up by Sussex Records, who tipped it to be as big as Dylan’s. But the album was a flop and after his second album “Coming from Reality” was released, the label dropped him and Rodriguez ended up becoming a handyman to pay his bills. However, a bootleg copy of Cold Fact made it to Africa during the time of Apartheid and became a huge hit. Half the songs were banned by African radio because of their anti-government lyrics, but this only added to the phenomenal success of the album, which went on to sell over half a million copies. But, unfortunately for Rodriguez, none of the money from the record sales ended up in his pocket.
Perhaps an insight into the cruelty of the music industry, or perhaps some emotional embellishment on the part of Swedish director Bendjeloul, but for much of the film we are forced to worship the modest Rodriguez as a tortured artist. However, the man who is shrouded in mystery is continuously intriguing and the drama makes for some top notch story-telling. This is an ode to great music, and an unbelievable journey into the unknown.