In 1970, Sixto Rodriguez, a construction worker from Detroit, released his first album Cold Fact. Those who had worked on it were really excited about it – and predicted big things for the singer songwriter whose impassioned lyrics reminded them of Bob Dylan. Reviews were good, but nobody bought the album. It was the same with his second attempt, Coming From Reality. Sales were terrible, Rodriguez was dropped by his record label, and the Sugar Man (as he was named after one of his song titles) drifted back into obscurity.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Somehow, a few of Rodriguez’s records turned up in South Africa. With apartheid in full swing and the media strictly controlled, music lovers couldn’t find much out about the singer, but his anti-establishment lyrics struck a chord with thousands. Rodriguez became massive in South Africa, and since they didn’t know otherwise, people just assumed he was massive elsewhere too. Unfortunately, he was also dead – rumour had it that Rodriguez had committed suicide onstage – some said he’d shot himself, others that he’d gone as far as setting himself alight.
In the nineties, with apartheid over, two men – a journalist and a record store owner – got to wondering about what had really happened to Rodriguez and resolved to find out the truth about how he died. Searching For Sugar Man follows the extraordinary story behind Rodriguez and what the two men discovered when they started looking for their hero.
The story is told mostly through interviews with those involved – from the producers of Rodriguez’s albums, to his old co-workers in Detroit through to the men in South Africa who searched for him. There are sweeping shots of Detroit and Cape Town – Rodriguez’s hometown where he was a virtual unknown, and the city thousands of miles away where he was adored. And the backdrop to it all is Rodriguez’s music itself, which still sounds fresh and relevant today – melancholy and angry with the unjust society in which he was living.
What criticism there has been of the movie has tended to base around the fact that the film’s maker, Malik Bendjelloul knew how the search ended before the film was made – but the film keeps the audience in suspense as if the outcome was unknown. Some argue this compromises the documentary nature of the film. But this strikes me simply as good storytelling – you don’t lay down all the facts at the beginning and anyway, the facts in this stranger-than-fiction tale are worth waiting for. In the last couple of years, excellent documentaries seem to have been making a comeback in cinemas and this fascinating and strangely heart-warming film is a worthy addition to that list