Show Me Cinema #21: Searching for Sugar Man

Sugar man, won’t you hurry

Cause I’m tired of these scenes

For a blue coin won’t you bring back

All those colors to my dreams

Sugar Man, Rodriguez (1970)

If I say the name Rodriguez, you will probably go “what? I beg your pardon? Who?” And it’s not that surprising frankly. The only reason why I had even heard about him and it was only in the vaguest of senses, was through this film, Searching for Sugarman from 2012. The film became quite a sensation in Sweden in 2012, becoming one of the best reviewed films of the year, and it quickly became the internationally most seen Swedish documentary, and was nominated for numerous Guldbagge Awards (the Swedish Oscar), including Best Film. But none of that compares to winning the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 2012 Oscars. But despite all of these accolades and acclaim I had no idea what it was about beyond some musician. Tonight was the first time I had ever seen the film, and almost a decade later I still knew nothing about it and boy am I glad I never looked this movie up. Because the less you know about the true story, the better. At most, just look up the most basic of synopsis on IMDb or some other place. But ideally, go in knowing nothing. Because what I saw was an amazing story in one of the most engaging documentaries I’ve seen.

In 1969, a young and aspiring singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez was discovered in Detroit. The label producers see him performing in a bar, with smoke all around them, covering their sight to some degree, and with Rodriguez’ back turned to the audience. They have a eureka moment, and immediately sign him. He’s going to become huge, they think. But only two albums are produced, 1970’s Cold Fact and 1971’s Coming from Reality, and they literally sell zero. Six copies of Cold Fact were ever sold in the States, estimates the head of the label company at one point in the film. They disappeared, and the once-promising career of Rodriguez was over. And like his albums, Rodriguez follows suit and disappears from the public eye.

Then they discover new life, of all places, in South Africa in the peak of the apartheid era in the 1970s and suddenly Rodriguez becomes a national sensation, symbolizing revolution and change in face of an oppressive system. Cold Fact becomes just as big as Abbey Road and Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Rodriguez’s status in South Africa exceeds the likes of The Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley. Yet, no one knows anything about Rodriguez. Eventually word spreads that he committed suicide after a final concert by a gunshot to the head, and that was the end of Rodriguez. Or was it?

One of the things I want a little from a documentary is to genuinely learn stuff I didn’t know, and obviously I didn’t know who Rodriguez was before seeing this film, and I doubt most people outside of South Africa had any idea of who he was. So listening to snippets of his songs as well as hearing about their significance in South African culture was really fascinating and proves how powerful of a medium art, and above all, music can be. And of course once the film was over I decided to listen to Cold Fact, and it was absolutely terrific, and you start to wonder how on Earth this has slipped the mind of most people because the music and lyrics on this album are as good as anything Bob Dylan ever made. He even sounds like Dylan in many respects but he nevertheless was already a fully formed artist judging by the quality of the songs.

But besides being very informative it’s also very suspenseful. We’re introduced to Rodriguez very much the same way those record producers were introduced to him. And the image of him performing with his back to the audience and smoke all over the place, adding an air of mystique to him, remains throughout the film despite the fact that we do eventually learn more about him. And that’s appropriate. He didn’t desire to be a rockstar, he was somehow beyond the simple glamour of that lifestyle. He was a humble and sincere man, and really very much a prophet in the same way as Dylan is a prophet. Their art elevates real life to something extraordinary, and that is one of the reasons why we must be so protective and supportive of art and artists.

The film was directed by Malik Bendjelloul, and tragically this became his first and only film. In 2014, little more than a year after winning the Oscar, Bendjelloul committed suicide by jumping in front of a train at rush hour. He was suffering from depression as he was working on his follow-up project, but alas, he left us and the news was quite shocking when first revealed even if I hadn’t seen the film at the time. When I’m writing this it’s only a few days after the death of the artist SOPHIE and I can’t help but compare the two as we clearly have someone who is very talented doing great work but are taken away from us way too early. It’s really sad and really very little we can do about any of it. But they left us with their art, and through it, they will survive for as long as humanity roams the Earth.

I wonder how many times you’ve been had

And I wonder how many plans have gone bad

I wonder how many times you had sex

I wonder do you know who’ll be next

I wonder I wonder, wonder I do

I Wonder, Rodriguez (1970)

Dedicated to Sixto Rodriguez, Malik Bendjelloul and SOPHIE


Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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