SXSW 2012 Review: ‘Searching For Sugar Man’ And Its Subject Matter Are Experiences Not to Be Missed

By  · Published on March 26th, 2012

I had never even heard of Sixto Rodriguez, the subject matter of the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, let alone had interest in his music. Born in Detroit in 1942, the man who would become known simply as Rodriguez was a singer/songwriter some compared to Bob Dylan, not as mellow but with the same lyrical talents and a wicked handle on the guitar. Rodriguez never found fame in the United States. Two albums released through Sussex Records in the early ’70s hit brick walls with critics and audiences, and his name quickly plunged into obscurity. He never found his musician’s footing here, but you know who really loves Rodriguez? South Africa.

That is the core of Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary, how one society’s rock and roll prince can be another society’s street sweeper. Rodriguez took local handyman jobs in Detroit while his albums blew up in Cape Town, one of many artists and philosophical politicos who sparked something in that culture that would eventually bubble up into the end of Apartheid. Rodriguez didn’t know he was a man of change to those people. Likewise, the people of South Africa had no idea who Rodriguez was, how successful – or not given the matter at hand – he was outside of their country, or even if the man was still alive.

For reasons that will soon become obvious to this article, it has to be revealed that Sixto Rodriguez is still alive. Various rumors of his suicide reached Cape Town, each one more anarchist and rock and roll than the last, but none of the rumors match up with real life. Rodriguez still lives in Detroit in a broken down apartment building, still works construction and maintenance jobs, still hasn’t caught that rock and roll star bug that has given rock and roll peers like Mick Jagger and Elvis Presley the keys to the kingdom – Rodriguez’s albums sold better than either of them in South Africa. Paul McCartney rolls up in limousines. Sixto Rodriguez treks through snow to pick up his groceries.

It’s a sad story Benjelloul takes us through with Searching for Sugar Man, each scene, every new direction this incredible story takes is matched delicately with one of Rodriguez’s songs. Songs like Crucify Your Mind and Street Boy making you aware of his great talents juxtapose with details of an understanding that this man is not, in any way, one of the chosen few who finds fame and fortune at the end of this artistic tunnel. The story of the tragic artist is one we’ve heard a thousand times before, but none end with the artist discovering he is, indeed, a legend, a golden God of rock, a man who changed people’s lives with his music and lyrics. He just didn’t know about it. Not until the last 15 years.

Searching for Sugar Man is a stupendous documentary, a bit heavy on the talking heads technique, but that’s a matter of personal tastes. You watch the story unfold, and you’re caught up in the music and politics of it all, all the while wanting nothing more than to watch this man perform live. There are so many documentaries and biopics about musicians we know, household names whose fame could easily be taken for granted. Searching for Sugar Man is about the other guys, those artists who never quite make it, and this one singer/songwriter in Detroit who became a legend and didn’t even know about it.

I mentioned all you want to do while watching this movie is experience Rodriguez perform, watch his hands move up and down a guitar while his nasally lyrics help you find deeper meaning. After the March 14th showing of the film in downtown Austin – Bendjelloul and Sixto Rodriguez both handled the Q&A afterwards. At one point Rodriguez answered a female fan’s question to which she said, “Thank you.” He responded with, “Ok, shit, yeah, ask me anything.” It was magical – I was fortunate enough to watch Rodriguez play at Mohawk’s bar and indoor stage. The crowd was passionate about this man. These weren’t South by Southwest patrons who wanted to see and would have kindly applauded for anyone. They wanted to see Rodriguez. And see him and hear him they did. He still has a wicked handle on that guitar, and his lyrics still pierce.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see this man’s story unfold, to not have the slightest idea who he was at the beginning of the night, to go through the emotions of wondering, like the people in South Africa, if Rodriguez was still alive or dead, if he could still play or even wanted. Weary as he may appear, the man is perfectly content with his place in life. He isn’t jaded and bitter, a mindset it would be so easy to fall into. He’s a kind, gentle man, and he rocks the shit out of some folk music.

For more information on Sixto Rodriguez, check out his official site. You won’t regret it.

The Upside: Director Benjelloul brings a story and a talent to light not many have heard, but, with Rodriguez’s talents and the oddity of his story, Searching for Sugar Man is an eye-opening doc that any music fan of the era will want to seek out.

The Downside: The film uses talking heads a bit much. This isn’t an instant flaw with any documentary, but too much of it can become monotonous. Benjelloul’s film would have benefited by hearing the interviews over found footage more than seeing the interviewees as they talk.

On the Side: Sixto Diaz Rodriguez got his name from being the sixth child in his family.

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