I am grateful that the documentary Searching for Sugar Man exists, because if it did not, few of us would be familiar with the music of Rodriguez, one of the most overlooked musical geniuses of the 20th century. He is a musician “overlooked” not because he is “under-rated”; rather, he is “overlooked” because he has not been rated at all.
Searching for Sugar Man documents the brief career of Sixto Rodriguez, a folk-y and enigmatic Detroit singer and poet of the people. A mysterious figure who always wore shades and kept his back turned toward the audience, Rodriguez released two stellar records, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, at the beginning of the 1970s, only to soon disappear into obscurity. While Rodriguez’s songs made little-to-no impact in the United States, his records somehow found their way to South Africa, where they played an important role in that nation’s struggle against apartheid. However, the South Africans who loved Rodriguez knew next to nothing about him, and most theorized that he had committed suicide in a ridiculously theatrical manner. A hunt for the story soon began, and he was found living in poverty, doing hard manual labor as a way to get by. In the years between the fall of his music career and his re-discovery, he had majored in philosophy, raised three daughters, and taken part in several mayoral elections, but mostly stayed away from recorded music. Upon learning of his super-stardom in South Africa, he returned to this new homeland in order play a series of sold-out concerts.
The story behind Rodriguez seems so outlandish and impossible that it has to be true- and it is. If there is anything that Sixto Rodriguez represents as an artist it is the on-going conflict of reality, so the documentary format is fitting. Although I had a few problems with how the film begins, it soon becomes enthralling, and the subject matter supersedes and transcends any minor technical errors. Rodriguez is a truly powerful figure who deserves recognition for his powerful and moving music, for the aching songs he has delivered and recorded. Unlike many musical artists, Rodriguez’s recordings have had a measurable impact on the world, and to almost no acclaim. At the same time, he has kept his ego in check; in fact, he isn’t even in possession of an ego in the slightest. This is a truly humble man, a man who holds ideas and experiences over material goods, means what he says, and asks for nothing from anyone. As a genre, documentary film-making is full of interesting characters, but Rodriguez stands out among the crowd.
I’m glad that Searching for Sugar Man has shed a light on such a little-known artist, and I hope that someday Rodriguez’s name is mentioned in the same long breaths as Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. He truly deserves recognition. I applaud the makers of Searching for Sugar Man for being the ones to finally give it to him.
Searching for Sugar Man is directed by Malik Bendjelloul and stars Mr. Bendjelloul and Rodriguez. Rated PG-13.