A few years ago the DJ, musician and film score composer David Holmes released an album under the moniker ‘The Free Association’. His band covered a song called ‘Sugar Man’, originally written and recorded by the reclusive Detroit-based singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez. Around the same time Holmes released a mix album entitled Come Get It, I Got It which included Sixto’s original at the beginning. I hadn’t heard of Rodriguez beforehand, but resolved to seek out some of his material; it proved difficult initially, but this being the early 2000s it wasn’t long before I managed to locate MP3s online. Around the same time a colleague of mine named Rob, a huge music fan himself, gave me his spare copy of Rodriguez’s rare, obscure debut album Cold Fact. I was hooked.
This fascinating documentary by Malik Bendjelloul, which won the Shiny Gong for Best Documentary at this year’s Academy Awards, examines Sixto Rodriguez’s career as a musician. While the singer has always had a small cult following in his native US (thanks to the quality of his two early 1970s albums Cold Fact and Coming From Reality), he is still a relative unknown, and Bendjelloul speaks to various Detroit residents and contemporaries in order to work out just why Rodriguez never achieved the same level of fame and recognition as, say, Bob Dylan. The engineers and producers that made those albums with him certainly believe he had more than enough talent, but after poor sales Rodriguez was dropped by his record label, Sussex, in the mid-1970s and drifted back into full-time construction work to support his family.
Meanwhile, a solitary copy of Cold Fact found its way to South Africa. Word-of-mouth spread, and the album’s popularity gradually rose as more people heard it, in part due to its anti-establishment lyrics and outlook. His songs were adopted as anti-apartheid anthems by white liberal South Africans, and copies of the record were even scratched by heavily-regulated radio stations so that certain tracks could not be broadcast on air. The album was licensed to various South African record labels, who re-released it, and it went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in that country alone. According to one interviewee in Searching For Sugar Man, Rodriguez’s name carries the same weight as Elvis Presley’s in South Africa, and Cold Fact can be found in most record collections, sitting neatly just after the likes of Abbey Road or Bridge Over Troubled Water. Rodriguez saw no money from the sales, however, and lived for many years in complete ignorance of his popularity in South Africa.
In the pre-internet years there was little information about Rodriguez available to his legions of South African fans, who were also thwarted by their government’s stance on the control and dissemination of information. Myths were commonplace, and rumours circulated that the artist had killed himself live on stage (though reports conflicted as to whether he had shot himself or doused himself in petrol before setting himself alight). South African fans examined his lyrics for clues, but aside from a few names and place names there wasn’t much to go on. The documentary is partly concerned with the efforts made by two such fans, record store owner Stephen Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, who resolved to find out more information about the singer.
[Spoiler warnings! Read on at your peril!]
Unbeknownst to the two, Rodriguez hadn’t set himself alight and certainly hadn’t blown his own brains out either, and was in fact living a modest life in Detroit, still working as a construction worker. Contact was eventually made after one of Rodriguez’s daughters got in touch via a website Segerman had set up asking for further information about the artist. Following a few phone calls a surprised Rodriguez was informed by an equally-dumbfounded Segerman about his popularity in South Africa, and duly visited in order to play several sold out concerts in Capetown. Indeed the footage of these gigs is remarkable, with many crowd members bright red from screaming at the top of their voices; it’s like the old Beatlemania footage, only these aren’t teenagers, they’re fully-grown adults, and it’s the late 1990s, not the early 1960s. Folk gigs aren’t normally like that.
Bendjelloul reveals the fact that Rodriguez is alive and well mid-way through the film with a simple, charming shot of the man at home, peering out of his window. The interview footage with Rodriguez that follows is particularly enjoyable. If anything, he seems a little embarrassed by all the fuss. His daughters suggest that he lives modestly, and he seems unaffected by this latter-day re-appreciation and fame abroad. There are oddly mesmeric shots of Rodriguez trudging through the snow around his Detroit neighbourhood, like a kind of heroic western figure of yore, and staple (but nonetheless relevant) shots of Detroit’s struggling businesses and smoking factory chimneys.
The main flaw with Searching For Sugar Man is that it largely ignores facts that get in the way of this heart-warming story of discovery. There is a slight suggestion that Rodriguez simply disappeared off the radar after he was dropped by his record label, which is slightly misleading. In actual fact he just got on with his life: along with working and raising a family he gained a degree in Philosophy and ran for city council in Detroit in 1989, albeit unsuccessfully (though the documentary does acknowledge this, later on). The documentary fails to mention that he was also popular in Rhodesia, Botswana, India, the UK, Sweden, New Zealand and – in particular – Australia, where he toured extensively in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However – understandably given government restrictions on information about banned artists – the South African fans were simply not aware of any of this.
At its core this is a tale that is as much about music obsessives as much as it is about Rodriguez himself. The South African fans and musicians that fell in love with Cold Fact are all infectious evangelists, and despite the fact the events depicted here took place in the 1990s their enthusiasm and surprise has not dimmed in the interim (equally evangelical are those that worked with Rodriguez in the recording studios of Detroit). It’s nice to see an overlooked talent get a degree of recognition years down the line and it’s hard not to break into a smile when you see footage of the singer and his family arriving in South Africa in the late 1990s, especially when one of his daughters tells of her shock upon landing in the country that the limos on the airport tarmac were actually for them. Rodriguez has since appeared on Letterman and The Tonight Show and is currently mid-way through a world tour that has seen him perform at the Glastonbury Festival and which will include concerts in nice more countries before the end of summer, culminating in shows at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
It’s a smart documentary that creatively uses animated sequences as well as archive footage and amateur home movies to tell the tale. It also makes excellent use, as you would expect, of Rodriguez’s limited back catalogue. A lot hangs on how you feel about the idea that this man’s art has been largely ignored by the masses over a number of decades. That hand has been dealt to many a talented musician, but I actually enjoyed the fact that Rodriguez is philosophical about and untroubled by the general indifference; in fact he seems very happy with his lot, and has lived a seemingly-fulfilled life to date. Objectively, despite being a fan of the man and therefore very interested in the subject matter prior to viewing, I’m not too sure why it has been quite so critically-lauded as it has been, but it’s an entertaining, well-meaning and uplifting film nonetheless.
Directed by: Malik Bendjelloul
Written by: Malik Bendjelloul, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman
Starring: Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, Dennis Coffey
Running Time: 85 Minutes