Starring Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Sixto Rodriguez
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul
I had two completely different reactions to Searching for Sugar Man. Let’s deal with them one at a time.
The last time a documentary made me feel so energized and happy was 2007’s King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. Searching for Sugar Man doesn’t have that kind of clear narrative conflict, of course. There’s no antagonist, really, other than, say, record label executives, or apartheid. Conflict isn’t the point. The point is discovery and wonder, and I think that makes Searching for Sugar Man a better film.
I hadn’t heard of Rodriguez before, which I imagine was the case for a lot of Americans. By all accounts an exceptionally talented musician, Sixto Rodriguez made two unsuccessful albums in the 70s and then faded into obscurity, in America at least. Overseas, he actually found some success, particularly in South Africa. Although bootleg copies of his albums consistently sold out despite government censorship, that same censorship made news about Rodriguez difficult to come by. Without any news or new albums forthcoming, many concluded that he was dead, until a superfan and a music journalist teamed up to track down as much information as they could about their idol, and find out exactly why he dropped off the face of the Earth.
Rodriguez looms in silhouette throughout the documentary, despite his self-effacing manner and his apparent disappearance. He’s like an anti-celebrity, with his portrait sketched in by a cast of interesting personalities who know him personally or knew him professionally. Record producers and managers rave about his musical talent, and lament the fickle nature of the American market. Bricklayers and bartenders weigh in about his early shows, and his good-natured construction worker friend talks about his philosophy of life. His three daughters add life and color to the mystery man behind songs as “Sugar Man” and “Crucify Your Mind.” It’s a unique perspective: Rodriguez is humble, and from a humble background; his friends, old and new, are from Detroit’s working class. No music legends come forward to describe his impact on American music, and the producers and record label executives can only shrug and shake their heads at his lost opportunities. The heart of this story belongs to his friends, his fans, and his family, and the things they say are not only sweet, but often insightful. Focusing on these voices brings us closer to knowing the man who played with his back to the crowd than any number of music industry people ever could.
Documentary filmmaking is about making choices to shape the story you want to tell. An early line of inquiry in the film follows the money from all those hundreds of thousands of Rodriguez albums sold in South Africa, trying to see where it ultimately went, if not to Rodriguez himself. No one will admit to doing anything wrong, and eventually Clarence Avant, former chairman of MoTown Records, asks, defensively, “Do you want the money, or do you want Rodriguez?” The answer, of course, is Rodriguez. The speed with which they drop the question of money is a little startling. If there is an antagonist in this film, it’s the record labels, who managed to profit off of Rodriguez’s foreign success without him ever seeming to know about it. But I think the movie benefits from not following the money. Again, this isn’t a film about conflict or seeking justice or uncovering unethical behavior. It’s about discovery, and about bringing a man back from the dead for thousands of South Africans.
Malik Bendjelloul captures the enthusiasm of Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom as they chase down the story, and translates that energy of amateur sleuthing, of putting together clues, to the viewer, leading to a series of very satisfying revelations. The set ups are so well-executed that at the first glimpse of Rodriguez, I said “There he is!” Selected interviews conducted with fans of Rodriguez, both in South Africa and his old haunts in Chicago, create this exhilarating tension, a sense of importance and high stakes, leading to the moment of meeting one’s lifelong musical hero face to face. It’s a transcendent experience.
By the end, I felt a little uneasy. We are told again and again how important Rodriguez is to South Africans, the impact his music had on a generation struggling with apartheid, and we are greeted by sweeping, gorgeous views of contemporary Cape Town. What we don’t see or hear about are black South Africans. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent that when Sugar says “South Africans”, he really means “white South Africans.” Footage of black South Africans during apartheid serve only to establish context for the white anti-apartheid student movement. One man explains that the consequences for speaking against apartheid could involve imprisonment for as many as three years; Mandela served twenty-seven. In concert footage, we see nothing but white faces. In fact, the only black voice we hear is Clarence Avant, an African-American, who is also the only person to suggest that Rodriguez’s lack of success in America might have had something to do with his race. Bendjelloul acknowledges this fact in an interview. Although he does say that someone told him Steve Biko was a Rodriguez fan, that second-hand rumor is as close as we get to a black South African perspective, and it is nowhere in the movie.
Maybe I had unreasonable expectations, and my unease isn’t the fault of the film. Obviously, if Rodriguez’s South African fans are white, most of the faces we see and voices we hear are going to be white. Interviews with black South Africans talking about how little they care about Rodriguez, underscoring the lingering effects of apartheid, would alter the story of the film in a big way. This is really a story about two South African fans whose obsession led them to track down everything they could about their favorite musician, up to and including the man himself. That they are white, and the rest of Rodriguez’s fans are white, isn’t part of that narrative. Still. I feel uneasy.
Ah, well. In spite of that, I enjoyed Searching for Sugar Man thoroughly. The film is amazingly well done, combining a music documentary celebrating the work of an unjustifiably obscure musician with the personal journey of two men chasing a legend. There is mystery, and detective work. There are surprising revelations, and brilliant discoveries. It’s a fantastic trip, full of humanity and triumph, and I left it feeling enriched.
I just wonder if I’d feel the same way if I wasn’t white.