tue 25/06/2024

Searching for Sugar Man | reviews, news & interviews

Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man

South Africans' fanboy quest to find disappeared cult singer-songwriter Rodriguez

Rodriguez, formerly residing in the file marked Where Are They Now file

Cult figures from rock music’s golden age are numinous today but few are more obscure than Sixto Rodriguez. The Mexican-American singer-songwriter released two albums on Sussex Records in 1970 and ’71. In the US they were quickly deleted and he seemingly vanished. Only a handful of crate-digging acolytes valued these albums, the first of which, Cold Fact, opened with "Sugar Man", a haunting ode to a drug dealer.

In the age of Mojo (ie the late 1990s) Rodriguez began to be championed, his albums were reissued David Holmes put "Sugar Man" on one of his compilations, Nas sampled this same tune and people wondered as to his whereabouts. It then became apparent that listening to and wondering about Rodriguez had been going on seriously in South Africa since the early 1970s. Somehow "Cold Shot" had been released there and become a huge hit. Searching For Sugar Man, directed by Swede Malik Bendjelloul, chronicles two middle-aged South African fans (who long believed Rodriguez had committed suicide on stage) as they describe their attempt to find out about their hero.

Listen to 'Sugar Man'

Beautiful cinematography from Camilla Skagerström and good use of animation give Sugar Man a startling look. Yet for the most part it focuses on the South Africans talking breathlessly about how much Cold Fact meant to them in their youth. If you find Bob Dylan acolytes a bore then these guys are your worst nightmare. Claims that Cold Fact provided the soundtrack to the anti-apartheid struggle go unchallenged – yet there’s no suggestion the white men interviewed were involved in the struggle and no black South African is interviewed – alongside such blatant fibs as “no bands ever visited South Africa during apartheid” when everyone from The Byrds to Queen were happy to take the regime's rand.

Thus Sugar Man dissolves into an overheated fanboy quest. When the singer finally appears – he still lives in Detroit and works in construction (pictured right, Rodriguez at a screening in Austin, Texas in March 2012)– he is a reluctant interviewee, his three lovely daughters being more willing to flesh things out. Much home video footage of Rodriquez’s hugely successful 1998 South African tour provides a coda of sorts but Searching for Sugar Man has by then become more feverish homage than thoughtful documentary.

Being long familiar with Rodriquez’s music I have to note that, beyond "Sugar Man", much of his music is rather earnest protest folk akin to Phil Ochs. It is very much of its era and, to these ears, often rather hectoring. And the film regrettably ignores the fact that he was very popular in Australia and New Zealand: he toured Oz in 1979 and ’81, even releasing a live album. One of his producers talks of visiting London with him in the 1970s but this is not developed. Thus the film’s suggestion that he had been lost in Detroit for decades is incorrect. Also, a bit more investigative journalism and a decent lawyer would surely have turned up the missing royalties to half a million South African record sales. Not that Rodriquez seems to care about this. Maybe the Sugar Man provided a pill to take away those concerns.

  • Searching for Sugar Man opens on Friday

Watch the trailer to Searching for Sugar Man

If you find Dylan acolytes a bore then these guys are your worst nightmare


Editor Rating: 
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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