Searching for Sugar Man

While the Academy Awards show played, I decided to skip it and watch Searching for Sugar Man, a marvelous film that I later learned won an Oscar for best documentary. The movie is about the musician Sixto Rodriguez, who made only two albums, in 1970 and 1971. Though the songs were great, and the people behind the album were top-notch, Rodriguez failed to catch on nationally and eventually left the music business, working manual labor jobs in Detroit.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, records and tapes of Rodriguez’s songs became among the most-played music of a generation. More popular than Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Doors, or anyone else of that time, Rodriguez got played at every party and gathering. His songs often contained themes typical for the time, commenting on social issues and the evils of “the establishment” — themes that resonated greatly with the youth of South Africa, which was at the height of apartheid. The government (especially under P.W. Botha) violently suppressed political statements and controlled the media, and SA resembled a police state, with little news coming in or out.

Because of this, no one in South Africa could learn anything about Rodriguez, and most believed that he had died luridly, killing himself onstage, either with a gun or in flames. In addition, Rodriguez never knew that a generation of a whole country had his music as their soundtrack. Eventually, in the ’90s, a journalist in SA decides to learn how he really died, and eventually discovers he hasn’t, and that he lives (seemingly contentedly) at poverty level in gritty Detroit.

The movie becomes practically a fairy-tale: Rodriguez comes to South Africa for a series of triumphant concerts, comfortable playing onstage in a large venue to screaming fans despite the years of downtime. And, we learn at the end, he is completely unchanged by the experience. A postscript tells us he gave away most of the money he’d earned, though he continues to visit and perform SA — one of his daughters even met, married, and had a child with a musician she’d met on the first trip there.

The movie itself is well-shot — amazingly on 8mm and iPhone — with subtly animated sections and B-roll helping to piece together the contexts of Detroit and Cape Town, and the interview sections are terrific: there’s the enthusiastic South Africans, the perplexed and nostalgiac US record company pros, the dumbfounded (and surprisingly philosophical) coworkers, the grateful if wary daughters, and Rodriguez himself, unsure what to do with all the attention but genuinely happy while it lasts.