Searching for Sugar Man

August 30, 2012 Movies

There is something about this film; I can’t stop telling people to see it. It is unbelievable. One of a kind. Thrilling. It sends chills down your spine. Literally. What a story. If the facts were not so well documented, I would think this story was made up. It sounds too good to be true, but it is. And that is what makes it compulsive viewing.

The film is about Sixto Rodriguez. A native of Detroit and the son of Mexican immigrants. He plays guitar and writes songs in the late ’60s and plays in some of Detroit’s underground bars and clubs. A producer signs him and he creates two albums of ’60s-type protest songs. He is named simply as Rodriguez on the albums. The lyrics are beautiful and the messages compelling. He sounds like Bob Dylan. Unfortunately the albums don’t get noticed, and by 1971 Rodriguez quickly fades into music obscurity.

Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, he struck a chord with South Africa’s liberal, anti-apartheid youth. They adopted his lyrics as their message. One man says: “He was the sound track to our lives.” He was a star there on the same level as Elvis Presley and more popular than the Rolling Stones.

Rodriguez knew nothing of his fame there and his fans were under the misapprehension that he was dead. He somehow committed suicide on stage during his last concert. So no one went looking for him. They didn’t even know he was from Detroit. This was when South Africa was a pariah among nations due to apartheid and it was isolated from the rest of the world and long before the internet connected everyone. So Rodriguez went back to his life in manual construction, mainly demolition, completely oblivious to his international stardom. And despite massive album sales, his first album went platinum, he didn’t receive a single royalty check.

The vagaries of life. Why not the same success as Dylan? He has the same lyric the same philosophy. Fame is so chancy. Like lightning. It took 30 years to hit Rodriguez. His story reminds me of the shock and surprise at the discovery of Susan Boyle on Britains Got Talent. It took them decades to become an overnight sensation. But we love their stories because they prove it is never too late to become a star, to be discovered, and fulfill your unrealized potential.

Finally a music writer decides to track down the myth of how Rodriguez died and after many dogged months on his trail finds out he is alive. The next thing he is plucked from his construction job into the twilight zone of playing in front of 20,000 screaming fans. He couldn’t play for the first 15 minutes the place was so crazed. Imagine Elvis found alive and came back for a concert. At the end of the concert he tells the audience: “Thank you for keeping me alive.”

As my friend Bob Rodriguez would tell you, I am no expert on music, nor on much else either for that matter, but I know what I like. And I like Rodriguez. His folk-rock music is captivating, it is like re-discovering Bob Dylan. When you hear “Crucify Your Mind,” it sounds like the best that Dylan ever wrote. “Sugar Man” tells of a rough life in the real inner city.

I have emailed all three of the cinemas that play documentaries in Miami to see if they are booking the film. I have yet to receive a reply. Perhaps they are searching for Rodriguez. If it doesn’t play here that will be a tragedy and you will have to wait for the DVD. But don’t miss this story.

Every once in a while a dream comes true. Every once in a while genius is finally recognized. How many of us die with our song still within us? For one man, one humble man, one unappreciated and ignored man, to have it happen is thrilling. The director Malik Bendjelloul put it this way: “Fate played out in a way that maybe it’s the most beautiful career an artist has ever had.”