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Searching for Sugar Man

I walked by the Brody Complex - the predominately freshman complex of six dormitories - at some point in the 90's, several years after I had graduated.  I spent a memorable first year at Michigan State University living in Brody.  In a window of Emmons Hall, the dorm nearest the street on which I was passing, I saw spelled somewhat awkwardly in white tape on a window facing the street the words, "Morrison Lives."  I was amused to see that some things never seem to change.

Imagine if your Morrison, your Hendrix, your John Lennon or Elvis, perhaps your Ian Curtis, came back to life.  Strange as that may seem, extend your fanciful train of thought even further to imagine that the only knowledge you possessed of your musical idol was a couple of albums, the pictures on the album cover and the lyrics to the songs.  Okay, perhaps you need to imagine owning such a thing as an album.  But no biographical information.  Only a vague mythology around the artist with it's rumors of a death on stage by immolation, or a pistol to the head after the completion of some performance as a response to an indifferent public or that show going particularly badly.  And that's it.  Two albums worth of songs that you and seemingly every like-minded soul  in your country own and find so meaningful.  Now imagine that several years later, perhaps as much as 25 years after your exposure to this music, you find yourself in a packed auditorium, waiting for that idol to take the stage.

Such was the experience of thousands of South Africans in 1998, when an American singer-songwriter called  Rodriquez appeared before them.

Never heard of Rodriguez?  You're hardly alone.  Aside from those devoted fans in South Africa and others in Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Australia, Rodriquez has lived most of the last 40 years in obscurity, particularly in his home country.  After recording two albums in the early 70's, Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971) - both records for which enthusiastic producers expected great success and sold virtually not at all -  Rodriquez returned to his rather humble life in Detroit, working in construction and demolition, later pursuing a bachelors degree in philosophy at Wayne State University.  If there is a city where dreams go to hide or die in plain site, the beautiful ruin of Detroit is such a place.  

Although he was believed dead by devoted fans in South Africa, the curiosity about the life and demise of Rodriguez would not completely subside.  When a compilation of the studio albums was finally released in the in South Africa, the first such CD release, Rodriguez enthusiast Stephen Segerman was called upon to write liner notes.  Segerman, nicknamed "Sugar"  due at least partially to one of Rodriquez's more memorable tunes entitled "Sugar Man", stated in his notes that virtually nothing was yet known of Rodriguez and wondered if there were any “musicologist-detectives out there.”  One such detective turned out to be Journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom.  The two men set out to determine how, where and when the mysterious artist had died.

Watching the detectives:  Rodriguez enthusiast turned record store owner  Stephen  Segerman  and journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom in Searching For Sugar Man.  

Director Malik Bendjelloul met Segerman and found the great story for which he was apparently searching while travelling around Africa in 2006.  He begins his film swooping along a coastal road near Cape Town, the overhead shot giving way to a look within Segerman's car as he sings along to a Rodriguez song playing on his car stereo.  Although Searching for Sugar Man is the Swedish director's first film, you wouldn't know it by the assured manner in which the story is presented.  That is certainly the case with the structuring of Searching for Sugar Man, taking an already amazing tale and revealing its secrets to maximum effect.  The assurance also shows in the seamless visual storytelling.   There's nothing new in the style of "Sugar Man, " but it has the polish of a veteran's work.

Mr. Bendjelloul said that he had little funding to make Searching for Sugar Man, which is why he edited the film himself.  He was, fortunately, able to employ a cinematographer, Camilla Skagerstrom.  For anyone who carries love or fascination for Detroit, Ms. Skagerstrom's photography of the city, often by night, is probably worth the price of admission to Searching for Sugar Man by itself.  Many an American newspaper or magazine has dispatched a reporter or photographer to Detroit in recent years to document the once great city's demise for the sake of selling a few more issues, but sometimes it's outsiders - from Chilean-born photographer Camilo Vergara to these two young Swedes, Bendjelloul and Skagerstrom - who seem to have the best eye for the Detroit's beauty and sadness, which often resides in such jarring juxtaposition.  After beginning the story in South Africa, establishing Rodriquez's popularity and importance among a generation of Afrikaners opposed to Apartheid and their government's authoritarian policies, the story moves to Detroit, where we have any an aerial perspective of the city as night falls.  

The man comes around:  Rodriquez walking the streets of Detroit.  

Rodriguez was discovered, in a sense, in a bar along the Detroit River called the Sewer by producers and musicians Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore.  As seemed to be his way, the every-mysterious Rodriguez was singing with his back to the audience, espied through the smoke and crowd of the bar.  Coffey and Theodore went on to produce Cold Fact.  Witness and participants to some of the best music produced in Detroit during the 1960's, Coffey and Theodore saw Cold Fact as a can't miss record.  Both men, along with other acquaintances interviewed on one frigid Detroit street corner or another, speak of Rodriquez in nearly mystical terms:  "He was this wandering spirit around the city...He's like a wise man, a prophet, way beyond being a musical artist."

As he begins to build the mystery of Rodriguez from his Detroit roots, Bendjelloul neatly segues from contemporary shots of the city to a brief animated sequence of Rodriquez wandering an early 70's Detroit street back to the present day.  Rodriguez's music is distinct, much as it reminiscent of the likes of  guitar-playing singer-songwriters Nick Drake and Bob Dylan.  Rodriquez is open in admiration of Dylan.  While his songwriting is more unadorned than the dark reveries of Drake, he has in common with the late Englishman a unique (if more percussive at times) sound on the acoustic guitar.  As Bendjelloul takes us along the forlorn streets of Detroit, the music of Rodriguez with its penetrating lyrics about relationships, drugs and the disenfranchised, urban poor make an apt soundtrack to the sad images, whether of the 1970's or today.

Rodriguez was obviously an unforgettable figure to Coffey and Theodore, as he was to producer Steve Rowland, who produced the artist's second album, Coming From Reality.  All lament the complete lack of sales with which the two albums were met upon their release, despite favorable reviews.  How refreshing it is to see an interviewee in a documentary say, "let me play something for you," and actually play the music of the film's subject, instead of favoring us with their own frustrated rock star fantasies.  This is what Rowland does as he's visited by Bendjelloul in his Palm Springs home, dropping the needle on a Rodriguez album loaded on the turntable, shaking his head at the artist's obscurity.  "Nobody had even heard of him.  How can that be?," he says.

One of the strengths of Searching for Sugar Man are those interviewed in Detroit and elsewhere.  I've had occasion to see a couple of other documentaries in the past week or so, Herb and Dorothy (about the modest New York Couple who amassed an extraordinary collection of modern art) and The Look:  Charlotte Rampling:  a self portrait through others.  Each film is positively thick with artists - conceptual and minimalist artists, writers and photographers  What's surprising is how little these exalted personages have to say about their work, the films' subjects or life in general.  I probably shouldn't be surprised by this.  With Searching for Sugar Man, the decidedly unexalted people who share their impressions actually add considerably to the appreciation of the subject at hand.  There is the obvious passion of the South Africans for whom Rodriguez's music came to be so meaningful, but also those interviewed in Detroit, men who worked with Rodriguez doing construction or demolition work.  One such friend and co-worker speaks of how artists are able to rise above the mundane  - something with which Rodriquez seems to have had ample practice over the past four decades - what an example is to be found in the way his life has been led, regardless of worldly approval.   The producers of the two Rodriguez albums also speak of the artist in hyperbolic terms.  Despite their contact and work with the mystery man, their words pale somewhat compared to the "men in the street."  However, in the case of Coffey, Theodore and Rowland, they seem to have spoken most eloquently through the medium of music, so often a higher language than words.  Their production of Cold Fact and Coming From Reality seems to have added texture and enhanced the mood of the already strong material that Rodriguez brought to the studio    

As Searching for Sugarman proceeds, the mystery and even myth around Rodriguez is rich enough to seem the stuff of fiction.  One certainly begins to understand the allure, not simply with the music but with the enigma of the man behind it.  Unfortunately, his South African detectives kept running themselves into dead ends.  Journalist Bartholomew-Strydom even visited some of the locations mentioned in Rodriguez lyrics, but there were no leads to be found.  Finally, he noticed mention of a place called Dearborn in the song, "Inner City Blues."  A quick flip through his atlas told him that the place in question was a suburb of Detroit, which led him to one of the producers of the Cold Fact album.  Bartholomew-Strydom received some rather shocking news about the fate of Rodriguez.  Segerman, meanwhile, with the help of a friend and a little  advance in technology called the Internet, started a website on which Rodriguez's name was placed on the side of a virtual milk carton.  As it happened, a woman who saw the image of Rodriguez on the milk carton had "seen this man."  She was his oldest daughter.  In short order, Segerman found himself talking to her.  Several hours later, the most memorable call of his life was announced by the ringing of his phone at 1:00 a.m.

Perhaps the most eloquent moment of Malik Bendjelloul's Searching For Sugar Man occurs when we get our first glimpse of Sixto Rodriguez on film.  Through a window, we see a man in a Detroit house.  Is it actually Rodriguez?  The man opens the window and looks out upon the urban scene before him.  Not word is spoken.  Hello, Rodriguez.  It's one of those moments in which the image, like music, requires no flimsy verbal elaboration.

The only South Africans we see in Searching For Sugar Man are whites.  The point is made that the music of Rodriguez was instrumental for a generation of Afrikaners who began to question and oppose the policies of their government:  "The message it had, was be anti-establishment....Really, the first opposition to Apartheid..they'll tell you, they were influenced by Rodriguez."  All well and good.  The even more significant point is made at least once that white South Africans were hardly the people suffering most during that long, regrettable period in their country's history.  None-the-less, it might have been interesting to know if the music of Rodriguez, so attuned to the disenfranchised, had any resonance with black South Africans.

There would also appear to be a slight elision on the part of Mr. Bendjelloul in trying to maintain, or even enhance the mystery of Rodriguez.  One gets the idea that after the crash landing of Cold Fact and Coming From Reality in the marketplace, Rodriguez then retired to his humble life in Detroit, not to be heard of until summoned from oblivion in the late '90's.  The music apparently did find an audience in a few places other than South Africa.  And Rodriguez was involved in Australian tours in 1979 and 1981, the latter with relatively high profile band Midnight Oil.

There's also surprisingly little conversation with Rodrigeuz after he does make that memorable entrance in Searching For Sugar Man.  But by most accounts, he is as humble and reticent as advertised.  Bendjelloul has said that Rodriguez wasn't sure he wanted to participate in the film at all, hardly the behavior one would expect from a man who's big break might have come forty years after it was expected.

That South Africa was for so long a closed society kept Rodriguez and his ardent fans unaware of each other's existence.  Malik Bendjelloul, it would seem, did not need exaggerate the contrast of Rodriguez's extremely modest existence in Detroit to sunny South Africa where he was summoned, assured that he was going to a country where he was bigger than Elvis.  The reaction at that first show, by all appearances as gratifying to the huge, joyous crowd as it was to the man who had been toiling in humble obscurity, is one of the more moving things you're likely to see on film this year.  Was it really Rodriguez?   As the rolling bass line of "I Wonder" picked up again after stopping for a sustained ovation, the man began to sing.  It was Rodriguez.  It was still Rodriguez.  Truth occasionally surpasses fiction in its ability to amaze and please.    



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