Does anyone have a favorite musician, who made music they really appreciated, only to have no idea what happened to that person or group? On the contrary, what if you did something you enjoyed and released your work to the public, found little success and faded into oblivion, only to learn years later that you have become something of an icon for a particular crowd. Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary that basically explores the idea of a mythical figure on the small scale. It follows the journey of a few men seeking the truth behind what happened to a musician who never amounted to much in his own country, but become something of a phenomenon elsewhere. It is a tremendously appealing film, due to the nature of the people involved, what we come to learn about the man who is sought after, and of course the wonderful soundtrack of the film.
Stephen Segerman: To many of us South Africans, he was the soundtrack to our lives.
With direction and interviews by Malik Bendjelloul, the film details the efforts of two men trying to discover what happened to the American musician Rodriguez. A gifted singer/songwriter, Rodriguez was a musician from Detroit who managed to get signed to a record label and release a few albums. Unfortunately, he was never able to become a bigger success. Just as Rodriguez emerged from dark clubs, playing with his back to audiences, he faded back into obscurity, with rumors that he committed suicide on stage, which became an urban legend that people accepted.
Regardless of what may or may not be true, the significant fact comes from somewhere else completely. Apparently, Rodriguez became something of a musical folk legend to the people of South Africa. Several years after Rodriguez released albums in America, his music caught on (mainly via bootleg copies) in South Africa, selling huge and creating a name for a man that people knew next to nothing about. The majority of the film explores who Rodriguez was and revolves around two fans, Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, searching to learn more about Rodriguez and what became of him.
I really enjoyed this film and appreciated what it had to do, because it was essentially a biopic with a mystery element attached, as no one has any idea what happened to this man, who developed such a strong following in a specific area. The fact that Rodriguez had what seemed to be an aloof quality made him all the more intriguing to learn about. Coming out of smoky nightclubs in Detroit and purposefully not facing the audience when he performed, the sense of the unknown involving Rodriguez made him into something of an enigma that I really enjoyed understanding more about.
The assembly of the film is strong and effective, as it moves through events chronologically, as is generally expected, but has the various pieces falling together quite well, as Bendjelloul, Segerman, and Strydom come to learn more and more about Rodriguez, with the film providing what are basically historical resources to inform them and the viewer more about the mysterious musician. It provides a way for the film to address a number of different topics; all while keeping Rodriguez at the center of attention.
We come to understand a little about the music industry and its relation to the minimal impact that Rodriguez had, as well as interesting tidbits about his rise to this sort of atmosphere. More interesting is when the film deals with the impact that Rodriguez’s music had in South Africa. It became popular enough to be used as a message against Apartheid, which is all the more fascinating due to the fact that the origin of this music is from a man that these people knew nothing about, yet felt incredibly strong about his lyrical poetry. Finally, we also come to understand Rodriguez, the man. Dealing with his family and friends and learning about what he truly cared about in life is also quite interesting and revealing in a way that is somewhat humorous, but also fairly touching.
There is an interesting twist in this film that I am not quite spelling out, regardless of how important it may or may not be, but the most important thing to know about this film is that it is the story of a man who may not have made a big splash in what would be considered his “prime” as a professional musician, but did become a folk hero nonetheless. It was not because of anything radical, it was simply due to the fact that he was a creative poet, who eventually became loved by a distinct audience. Adding on to that, we now have a film that puts Rodriguez’s story on record and it is a well-made one, which features great interviews, a wonderful original soundtrack composed of Rodriguez’s music, and an engaging nature overall.
Rodriguez: Thanks for keeping me alive.
Feel Free To Check Out The Soundtrack Here:
He also co-hosts a podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, available via iTunes or at HHWLOD.com.