Searching For Sugarman (2012)
A documentary about the mysterious Rodriguez, the singer/songwriter who released the album Cold Fact in 1970. Directed by Swedish-British filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, this is a well told underdog story that left me in happy tears, despite some factual omissions and mysteries left unsolved.
Growing up in Australia in the 1980s, I was exposed through my Dad to the music of Rodriguez, so the memories evoked by the soundtrack and the expert storytelling in this remarkable documentary both drew me in. The story sustained my interest throughout, yet I left the film with the conflicted feeling of having been both entertained and misled at the same time.
Rodriguez was a talented musician from working class Detroit, a background which infused both his lyrics and his voice with a cynical Dylanesque character. He released two albums in the US during the 1970s, but they failed to gain traction there.
The film documents Rodriguez’s rise to fame in apartheid-era South Africa, unbeknownst to himself, and follows the 1990s journey of two hardcore fans, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, on a quest for truth amongst the dark mythology that surrounds him. Rumours of Rodriguez having set himself alight on stage add to the mystery, and Bendjelloul milks this suspense for all it’s worth, before the grand reveal: a post appears on the internet from somebody with information that will help to solve the riddle once and for all, and so the plot continues. It wouldn’t be fair to spoil it, but even if you know the outcome, it’s still enchanting viewing.
The tale seems unlikely, but the world was less connected in the late 1990s than it is now, and the internet was only just beginning to tear down national boundaries. This documentary is both an insight into the sheltered, middle-class white suburbia in apartheid-era South Africa and into Rodriguez the performer: a monastic, saint-like figure who achieved high art without achieving fame.
Cold Fact was a classic album in my childhood, and this is where the documentary falls down somewhat. Firstly, much is made in the first half of a “where did the money go?” style mystery: Rodriguez was huge in South Africa and the film’s sinister hints of misappropriation of funds are never fully resolved. Secondly, Cold Fact also sold well in other countries, including Australia. Rodriguez toured Australia in 1979, followed by a second tour with Midnight Oil in 1981; these facts don’t mesh well with the film’s emphasis on Rodriguez’s obscurity.
However, the film’s focus is on South Africa, and the omission of such details can be forgiven in this context. Rodriguez’s haunting voice and music combine well with the story, revealed by Bendjelloul using a blend of archival footage and interviews.
I saw the film at an outdoor screening and the ending brought sustained applause from the large crowd. An inspiring and riveting documentary, particularly for music fans.