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Searching For Sugar Man

Searching For Sugar Man

By Ben Nicholson • January 14th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5

Release date: December 27th, 2012
Running time: 86 minutes

Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Writer: David Koepp
Composer: Howard Shore

Cast: Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen Segerman, Craig Batholomew Strydon

Searching For Sugar Man

In the modern world, celebrity culture has saturated almost every single aspect of our lives. It comes in the forms of the desperation for fame to be found on reality television, glossy gossip magazines and bookstores with entire sections devoted to celebrity hardbacks. In the modern era, a young footballer in his early twenties will already have produced at least one ghost-written autobiography. Z-list actors and one-hit pop stars are more than happy to debase themselves by eating cockroaches in the jungle. Fame has almost overtaken the resulting fortune as the coveted unit of currency and people of all shapes and sizes expressly long for it – or at least their allotted five minutes in the limelight.

In the world of music there are, naturally, alternatives to the pre-fabricated or talent show pop acts that spring up on a regular basis. The world still has many a band who get where they are through long years of graft. But given that current culture is permeated to the highest degree with a desire for fame, the story presented in Malik Bendjelloul’s riveting music documentary, Searching For Sugar Man, is even harder to believe.

It tells the tale of a musician in Detroit who recorded two albums in the late 1960’s and the early 1970’s. That musician’s name was Sixto Rodriguez. He was a strangely reserved performer, often mistaken by local inhabitants as a tramp, whose albums completely bombed. Those that knew him best regarded him as one of the finest – if not the finest – lyricists they’d ever heard; better than Dylan they’d tell you. Sadly, the music buying public never really got on board with this view and the two records were all that was ever produced.

Searching For Sugar Man

Skip forward several decades to a record shop in Cape Town, South Africa. Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman is the proprietor of the shop and reveals the remarkable story of Sixto Rodriguez in the country. Despite his lack of success in the States, something which mystified his label and manager, it turns out that he had a more substantial standing in RSA. Bootlegged copies of his first album, Cold Fact, spread like wildfire, sensationally becoming the musical inspiration of a generation. The seminal album became intrinsically linked with the anti-apartheid movement. He was, quite literally in South Africa, bigger than Elvis.

Nobody in the country ever knew what had be become of Rodriguez after his two albums though and various equally grisly legends abounded including one that saw the singer set light to himself on stage. In reality, it didn’t matter how, or when, Rodriguez had died, it all just added the mystique of a musical legend with unparalleled national success. Nobody knew a darn thing about him except for what was one the album sleeve. It was this information that one day, in the early 90’s, saw ‘Sugar’ try to glean more knowledge about his hero (his nickname comes from one the singers most famous tracks, Sugar Man).

Segerman’s investigation, along with music journalist Craig Batholomew Strydon, saw South Africa learn that neither Rodriguez, his manager, nor – apparently – his label knew anything of his massive success. What’s more, they learned that the idol Searching For Sugar Manhad not perished on stage in a bevy of flames. Nor had he shot himself in similarly theatrical fashion. He hadn’t even died of natural causes; he was somewhere in the world, living out his life.

Up to this point, Searching For Sugar Man is an interesting and engaging investigation of a musician with unknown success half way across the world. But this is really all just backdrop. The real story of the documentary is the search for Sixto. By this point you’ll all have a fair idea of what’s going to happen but the results are still heart-warming in the extreme. We get to meet the inconceivably humble Rodriguez, living as a labourer in Detroit, as he learns, decades later, of the acclaim and esteem in which he is held in a country to which he’s never been. Needless to say, it can’t remain like that and the results are absolutely not to be missed.

And that’s what makes the story told here all the more unbelievable. It’s hard enough to imagine that a singer “bigger than Elvis” could carry on entirely oblivious to his enormous success. It’s even more surprising to see his quiet pride of the unrivalled admiration of music lovers making up an entire country. Spending just the smallest time in his company is like medicine for the soul in this day and age. The film’s inevitable Oscar nomination is one that’s definitely deserved, but probably just the kind of attention and back-slapping that its subject would avoid. He courts no fame, nor riches, and quietly accepts the plaudits. It’s a thoroughly engaging and enriching story that is more than worth a look.

Searching For Sugar Man

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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