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Searching for Sugar Man

2012 | 86 min | PG-13 | 1.85:1

Searching for Sugar Man


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Theatrical release date

 27 July, 2012
 26 July, 2012

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Searching for Sugar Man Preview  

 / 10
Preview by Brian Orndorf, August 17, 2012

In 1970, an album titled “Cold Fact” was released in America. A product of a Detroit-based man known only as Rodriguez, “Cold Fact” (and its single “Sugar Man”) went out into the world with an expectation of success, wowing those in the industry who were knocked flat by Rodriguez’s skills as a songwriter and performer, revitalizing the folk rock genre. The record flopped in the U.S., as did a second effort, 1971’s “Coming From Reality,” leaving the artist without a future in the industry, joining the ranks of millions who tried and failed to make a career out of music. And then it all came to a horrible end in later years, when Rodriguez, after a particularly painful gig, put a gun to his head and killed himself on stage.

While American audiences turned their back on Rodriguez’s music, South Africa welcomed the man as the second coming of Elvis. Locked in the dark days of apartheid, the youth of the nation craved a voice of reason, using Rodriguez’s anti-establishment message as the soundtrack to a revolution, born from bootleg tape circulation, eventually growing into record sales topping 500,000 copies, making the artist unimaginably popular in a distant part of the world. For young Cape Town music fan Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, Rodriguez grew into an obsession. Finding the singer’s mystique enticing, Segerman devoted his free time to researching just who Rodriguez was, hoping to learn more about a musician who died from a horrible drug overdose a few years after the release of “Coming From Reality.”

As Rodriguez’s popularity grew in South Africa, his fans routinely questioned just who this amazing performer in shades really was, without any biographical information available to the public to assist in research. The mystery was too much for some, including journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, who, in 1997, wrote an article inspired by Segerman’s call to investigate Rodriguez’s life, working through layers of the music industry to locate anyone connected to the performer, hoping to provide a loose outline of the man in his heyday, before his tragic self-immolation in the late 1970s.

Turns out, there wasn’t a whole lot of information about Rodriguez to work with, forcing Segerman to take a “Da Vinci Code” route, studying lyrics and songwriting credits to piece together a greater understanding of a figure named Sixto Diaz Rodriguez. The documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” is a record of this investigation, tracing the musician’s history as a laborer in Detroit in the late 1960s to his days as a recording artist, where his songs were met with great respect from industry types, but never found their way to radio. After two efforts, Rodriguez faded away into obscurity, making his eventual dominance in South Africa bittersweet, unable to be shared with the artist himself, leaving fans to invent their own final chapter on the life and times of the unknown icon.

Director Malik Bendjelloul does a superb job collecting and arranging the Rodriguez story, using animation and the music itself to set a reflective mood for an enigmatic man, moving from Detroit to Cape Town to interview friends and admirers, with everyone unsure about the particulars of Rodriguez’s life, yet utterly melting in the presence of the music. “Searching for Sugar Man” is more of a detective story than a biographical feature, with the director building a portrait of Rodriguez out of fragments of opinions and stories, recounting Bartholomew-Strydom and Segerman’s labor to bring the singer back from the dead, showing immense appreciation for songwriting and the impact Rodriguez had on a burgeoning nation.

The story takes on a few critical twists and turns, the best being a pointed interview with Clarence Avant, the former owner of Rodriguez’s record label. When Bendjelloul brings up an issue of royalties from South African record sales, Avant grows belligerent, adding a potent dimension of music industry fraud to an already troublesome story of poverty. What’s terrific about “Searching for the Sugar Man” are these candid moments, leading to a steady run of discoveries that grow in size and emotional potency as the film unfolds. The documentary also brings the music of Rodriguez to the forefront, generating immediate interest in a forgotten artist, permitting the delicate yet barbed tunes to guide the experience, returning a sense of excitement to a man who unfortunately missed out on the highlights of his career.

Starring: Malik Bendjelloul
Director: Malik Bendjelloul

» See full cast & crew

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Searching for Sugar Man 7 Feb 02, 2013

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