Movies: Searching for Sugar Man

Football season is over, which means it’s movie season.

Mrs Swade and I will be seating ourselves in the cozy confines of the State Theatre from time to time, chewing on some chocolate swirls and enjoying a beverage or two (Hartz cola for me, a glass of merlot for she) whilst taking in some of the latest action on the silver screen.

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Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary from Sweden about a Mexican folks singer based in Detroit who unknowingly enjoyed significant fame in South Africa. Confused yet?

The singer is an artist known as Rodriguez, who released two albums in the late 1960s. Those who worked with him rated Rodriguez as a genuine talent, one of the best they’d ever worked with, in fact. Despite this, the record company’s own executive guesses that he might have sold around six albums in America. Being a Mexican folk singer wasn’t a recipe for success in Motown at the time.

Rodriguez slips back into normal life after his second album fails and is never heard from again.

Fast forward a few decades and it turns out that Rodriguez’s recordings saw considerable success – in South Africa. It started small in the 1970s but his two albums gathered pace, providing a soundtrack to the apartheid era for South Africa’s youth. His songs are considered so controversial in a very conservative South Africa, that the government had someone physically scratch out one of his songs on the vinyl stored at a Capetown radio station so that they were unable to play it.

While Rodriguez is famous in South Africa, his fans know nothing about him. This is the pre-internet era, when the only stories fans heard about an artist were those that made it into newspapers or magazines. The lack of information about Rodriguez made him all the more intriguing, with rumours circulating about his life/death once his recording career was over.

The story you’ll see in Searching for Sugar Man became real when a young South African journalist set himself a goal of finding out the truth about Rodriguez’s death.

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This is an analog story – a recording artist from the pre-digital era who knows nothing of his own success, whose fans can’t follow his every move as fans tend to do today. The mystery was solved in the digital era, however, with Rodriguez’s daughter eventually making contact with searchers via an early internet bulletin board.

As with the film I reviewed last week (Argo), Searching for Sugar Man is a factual story. If you know what happened to Rodriguez, you might find that the first half of the film drags a little. The second half, however, more than makes up for it as you learn the full impact of his success and how it plays out.

Searching for Sugar Man is a heartwarming film about discovery, redemption and to a certain extent, justice. If you’ve ever been an enthusiast – for anything – then I think you’ll really appreciate the lengths people went to to find out Rodriguez’s story and you’ll really enjoy the reward afterwards.

At the heart of this movie is Rodriguez’s extraordinary music, which provides the soundtrack for the entire film. You can understand the difficulty associated with promoting a Mexican folksinger in 1960’s Detroit, but you’ll be left feeling that maybe the world missed out on seeing an emerging talent blossom into something quite special.

If you’re a fan of music, or even just a fan of life, go an see Searching for Sugar Man.

Mrs Swade and I gave it four stars (out of five).

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6 Comments

  1. The football season is still alive in Sydney Swade!!!
    I am seeing Rodriguez at the Blues Festival in Byron next Easter so will try to see the movie in the meantime. I have fond memories of listening to his music, wearing cheesecloth, passing the dutchie to the left hand side.

    Cheer, cheer the red and the white,
    Honour the name by day and by night,
    Lift that noble banner high,
    Shake down the thunder from the sky
    Whether the odds be great or small,
    Swans will go in and win overall
    While her loyal sons are marching
    Onwards to victory.

    copaking

  2. Worth noting that while the SA journalist sets out to find the truth about Rodriguez’ death, that Rodriguez is very much still with us.

  3. the music of Rodriguez was known in Australia too, but it was pretty much an underground thing. I remember him from the early 80’s but have only one album left (lost the other two). Sugar man probably stole it!

  4. Sixto Rodriguez is just great, he’s truly an Hispanic Bob Dylan… wish we’d had the chance to know about him in the States when he was performing here in the 60s. We have his original albums on CD and sure hope that he graces the world with some new creations.

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