It takes documentaries to show us how formulaic, simple and unremarkable most movie lives are. Think about your life. Does it exist in an easily defined genre? Did the defining moments of it respond neatly to a three-act structure in a timely and narrative way? Lives ramble, they meander, they aren’t neat. Often times the most interesting aspects of them remain unnoticed; sometimes they blossom into fascinating stories. That’s what documentaries are for.
Searching for Sugar Man (2012) tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a mysterious Detroit musician who haunted the clubs and bars of the Motor City singing his Dylan-esque folk songs in the late-’60s and early-’70s. Rodriguez drew attention of a few of the record labels in the area from producers of some of the decade’s heavy hitters who knew a true artist when they heard one. He released two albums and started a third but failed to command the attention of the public and he quickly faded from the scene, to the dismay of the producers and collaborators who knew how good he was. “Did he get enough promotion? Did he do enough performances? Was he too political? Was there this or that? Should it have been green instead of orange? Should it been a violin instead of an oboe?” Mike Theodore, one of Rodriguez’s early producers asks. “The circumstances were right, why didn’t it make it? That’s the question that haunts me today.” Many other people echo his sentiment.
The history of rock music (and art in general) is littered with talented people who culture didn’t have the time for. Rodriguez’s songs, which wallpaper the soundtrack of Searching for Sugar Man, have every right to be as revered as Dylan’s or Lou Reed’s or any number of people who trade in mellow, lyrics-driven folk music. Yet, Rodriguez is virtually unknown in his own country, end of story. Except, while Rodriguez was getting out of music and finding odd-jobs as a demolition man on construction crews, his music was taking off in South Africa as an anti-establishment guiding light against apartheid and other oppression. During the ’70s and ’80s an Afrikaner could count on finding at least two albums in every record shop: “Abbey Road” by the Beatles and “Cold Fact” by Rodriguez. When asked if Rodriguez was more popular than the Rolling Stones, a South African fan is incredulous. “He was much bigger than the Rolling Stones.”
If the movie is to be believed, Rodriguez’s music was spread throughout the Rainbow Nation by one person, an American fan who brought the records with her to share with her South African boyfriend, a record shop owner. Rodriguez knew nothing of his fame and success in Africa and his fans there knew nothing of him. It was assumed he was dead. Rumors circulated that he had killed himself, often on stage, either by lighting himself on fire or finishing a song then shooting himself. How else could you explain the sudden stoppage after just two records of this wonderful music that must have been huge in America, the South Africans figured. When his songs were played on the radio (and some of his more drug-promoting or anti-authority numbers were banned by the government) the royalties went to the small production houses; Rodriguez spent three decades completely unaware of his African success.
In the ’90s, two South African fans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, became determined to find out the facts of their hero’s fate. Using a “Paul is dead”-type of scrutiny of Rodriguez’s lyrics to ascertain his location (Dearborn, Michigan, is mentioned in a song), the pair were able to find friends and family who told them that Rodriguez’s death had been greatly exaggerated. Dumbstruck that he was unknown in America, they revealed to Rodriguez his huge following in their country and organized a series of concerts, allowing the introverted Rodriguez to perform to some of the largest audiences of his career and to reap the rewards of stardom, including the time-honored rock tradition of signing a fan’s cleavage.
“I don’t know how much they believed; it is quite a grandiose story,” one of his daughter says of her neighbors when they returned from her father’s performances. “It sounds like the kind of thing you would make up.” That’s how the best documentaries should feel and Searching for Sugar Man does a nice job of handling its weird and incredible material. Perhaps a little too nice of a job. The movie makes it seem as if Rodriguez put his guitar down in 1973 and didn’t pick it up again until the South Africans contacted him, reaffirming his love of music. However, he was already a big star in other parts of the world and he toured fairly regularly. Some of the best parts of the movie are the context of the music against the political backdrop of South Africa at the time. The fascinating resonance that a Detroit musician’s words and attitudes had with oppression half a world away is well-handled but incomplete. All the interviewees from South Africa are Afrikaners who discuss apartheid as a horrible system that Rodriguez’s music taught them to question; it would have been nice to learn if Rodriguez was popular among black South Africans, whether the message meant the same to them, or whether they were thought of as empty platitudes in the face of institutionalized oppression. Of course, it would be impossible to accurately characterize the thoughts of an entire people from one or two interviews, but no opinions from that community are heard.
Still, the movie weaves a mesmerizing portrait not only of a man’s music and its fans but also of the remarkable circumstances that, by and large, the information age has done away with. Most documentaries are about obsession; here’s one in which the subjects wouldn’t let their obsession rest, even when they were an ocean away and thought they were chasing a ghost. Rodriguez remains a mystery and the filmmaker’s attempt to recruit our sympathies to the fact that his African success did not translate into financial security doesn’t land. But those are auxiliary to the movie’s main thread: Here is a movie about people who believe in music and will do anything to further promote it.