Searching for Sugarman is the intriguing story of the American singer-songwriter Rodriguez, whose album ‘Cold Fact’ (1970) became a surprise smash hit in South Africa during the years of Apartheid. Malik Bendjelloul directs this piece of investigative film making, which sets out to explore the cultural phenomenon that took place in South Africa, as well as identifying who the mysterious artist really was.
Bendjelloul follows a collection of Rodriquez fans, including characters such as loyal follower ‘Sugar’, piecing together the disparate elements of their tales about the infamous artist to create a coherent history of his rise to stardom – without his even knowing it. Starting out in Detroit, his first single ‘I’ll Slip Away’ was released in 1967, to critical acclaim, but without commercial success. Following this came two albums, ‘Cold Fact’ and ‘Coming from Reality’, both of which flopped, and Rodriguez was dropped from his label Sussex Records. Rodriguez subsequently faded into obscurity, and those interviewed in his home town know him as a construction worker and handyman.
The film asks the questions as to why Rodriguez never made it in his home country: some talking heads argue that it was because he was too similar to bob Dylan, already big at the time. The real reason, however, is quite clear and is something that American popular culture was consistently guilty of during the 1960s-70s: racism. Sixto Jesus Rodriguez came from Mexican heritage, and with such an obviously latino name, his career was doomed from the minute he wrote ‘Rodriguez’ on his album cover.
On the other side of the world, however, urban legend has it that one of his albums made it through the blockade, and to the ears of half a million South Africans – in the suitcase of an American traveller. The nation, who had spent so long fighting for freedom, took up his music as the mantra of their struggle against apartheid, embracing the lyrics of his protest songs, which slipped through the authority’s censorship regime.
It is through this fascinating journey of a single album, that we discover a great deal about the state of South Africa during apartheid: the censorship, the blockade, the segregation, and most importantly for Bendjelloul, the music. Bendjelloul meets many musicians who were inspired by the music of Rodriguez and went on to write and perform their own Afrikaans protest songs, which had a huge impact on South African society.
The mystery surrounding Rodriguez’ reported suicide is what drives the second leg of the film: some say he shot himself on stage, whilst others believe he set himself alight in front of a room of his fans – every contributor to the movie has heard a different rumour, all of which add to the intrigue surrounding the artist, known only in Detroit for his performances in bars with his back to the audience, and always pictured in the shadows or wearing shades.
From start to finish, Rodriguez is painted as a true artist – a man who lived the message he preached. Today, so many artists write lyrics philosophising about how music is what matters, and material goods will not satisfy, but few really live by this discipline. Rodriguez is depicted as a humble man, whose inspirational music saved a generation of South Africans, and whose legacy will hopefully live on following this belated Western recognition.
Truly beautiful in places, and at intervals devastating, Bendjelloul has created a biopic of epic proportions, a truly wonderful piece of investigative journalism, on a worthy, fascinating subject.