Searching for Sugar Man the acclaimed film about Rodriguez, South Africa’s Elvis, America’s lost rock star
At his very last gig, heckled by a hostile audience, Sixto Rodriguez sings one last mournful refrain: “Thanks for your time, you can thank me for mine…” His first two albums have flopped, and he’s been dropped from his label Sussex Records, (founded by Clarence Avant, the “godfather of Black music”.) It’s two weeks before Christmas — ironic, given Rodriguez wrote the track Cause about the very same scenario, before there was a whiff of anything sour at Sussex.
Closing his eyes and ignoring the jeers, he puts his guitar aside and walks away from the mic as he utters the last lyric, “forget it”. Taking the lighter from his back pocket, he douses himself in alcohol, and sets himself ablaze onstage in front of a horrified audience.
This dramatic conclusion to an otherwise eventless music career was, up until quite recently, the most well known ‘fact’ about the mysterious Mexican-American singer Sixto Rodriguez. But Swedish director Malik Benjelloul’s debut film, Searching For Sugar Man tells an altogether more optimistic story, one of passion and the power of music to change the lives of individuals – and an entire nation.
Searching for Sugar Man opens in post-Apartheid South Africa, where Rodriguez’ album Cold Fact (1970) has consistently been one of the biggest selling albums of the last 40 years. How it arrived is uncertain, but somehow, a bootleg copy found its way into South Africa in the early 70s, and it quickly became a staple item in every white middle-class liberal Afrikaner household — along with Abbey Road (1969) by the Beatles and Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970) by Simon and Garfunkel – the soundtrack for the anti-apartheid counter-culture movement, banned by the government and South Africa’s airwaves for its politically charged tracks such as The Establishment Blues.
“A bootleg copy found its way into South Africa and quickly became a staple item in every white middle-class liberal Afrikaner household”
But as apartheid fell towards the end of the 80s and South Africa opened up to the world with the arrival of Nelson Mandela’s government and then the internet, Rodriguez’ second album Coming From Reality (1971) was reissued on CD, prompting “musicology detective” Craig Bartholemew and record store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman to start an online hunt for the truth behind Rodriguez’s death. Did he set himself on fire? Put a pistol in his mouth? How did he really die?
On rare occasions, real life can turn up truths unbelievable in fiction.
By following the paper trail of money from Rodriguez’ album sales, the geographic references of his lyrics (and finally, by receiving an unexpected hit on their website from Rodriguez’ daughter) they discovered their idol alive and well, and working as a labourer in Detroit.
“Overwhelmingly it is the strength of Rodriguez’ music that shines in Searching For Sugar Man”
What was more surprising was that, whilst in South Africa, Rodriguez was a household name — “bigger than Elvis” according to Bartholomew and Segerman — back home in America he was barely even a footnote in Motown history.
As Clarence Avant saw it, Cold Fact and follow up Coming From Reality (1971) sold “about six copies” in the USA despite producers such as Steve Rowland (Jerry Lee Lewis, The Cure, Boney M, Japan), Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey proclaiming Rodriguez’ talents on par with Bob Dylan.
So what was it that prevented Rodriguez from achieving success? Was it the wrong song choices? Poor promotion? Or was it something more endemic of America in the 1970s; was it the fact Rodriguez was Mexican, whilst Dylan was white?
There are many questions that Searching for Sugar Man probes, but overwhelmingly it is the strength of Rodriguez’ music that shines through the film, and it is the enduring quality of his songs that ultimately triumphs.
Betty Wood met Rodriguez, and debut director Malik Bendjelloul in London to talk about Searching for Sugar Man following its critical success at Sundance, and to find out from Rodriguez himself how it felt having his life turned into a film.Addendum: Director Malik Bendjelloul died on 13 May 2014. As well as his Oscar-award winning film, Searching For Sugar Man, Bendjelloul also also directed television documentaries about German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, and singers Elton John, Rod Stewart and Bjork.