Searching for Sugar Man (a review)

This was my favourite movie/documentary from 2012. An awesome character study of a ‘genuine’ artist and also a riveting detective story.

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One of my favourite lines in the documentary is the bit where one of the interviewees sums it up pretty well: ‘Most of us are capable of greatness – and in some of our more introspective and quiet moments – we all fantasise, that one day – we will show the world who we are and what we are capable of. But the truth is that most of us will die without having achieved greatness. Most of us will die without letting the world and people know who we really are’.

And so begins a remarkable story of a remarkable event in which one man’s greatness is actualised. I’m not going to talk about the documentary in depth. I don’t want to give anything away. But I was in tears at the end of it (I’m serious). At the end of it I had a lump in my throat so large I had to go outside for some fresh air.

In short: the documentary is about a singer song writer in the 1970’s called Rodriguez. Rodriguez was from Detroit and he would frequent various dive bars and disreputable locales near the harbour where – with his back to the audience – he would strum his guitar and sing his songs. He was a wanderer, and most people thought he was a homeless guy. Nobody knew who he was or what he did. He was a mystery. He would appear from nowhere – from the city haze – and disappear just as mysteriously.

One evening, two well known music producers saw him play in one of the bars, and they were so mesmerised, so taken were they by his obvious songwriting and singing talent, that they signed him up on the spot. He was one of the best artists they had ever seen. He was going to be big. They knew it. Bigger than Bob Dylan. Bigger than the Stones. “He had it” they said – whatever “it’ was. “He had it”. So Rodriguez released two brilliant albums, with tunes and songwriting so exquisite, so haunting and powerful and true – and yet both albums were commercial flops. They did not sell and they disappeared into the abyss without making a single noise in the music world.

The record company couldn’t understand it. Here was a bonafide musical genius – yet the albums sold didly squat (nothing) and so Rodriguez was ‘let go’ by the record company and he returned back into the murk from whence he had surfaced. He isn’t heard of again in the music world…

But it is what happens 35 years later – that will leave you speechless…

Because there is a country where Rodriguez’s album do sell. They sell millions. That country is South Africa – and in South Africa Rodriguez is big. But because of Apartheid – and the restrictions imposed by the government and the world – the South Africans never get to learn who Rodriguez is, and Rodriguez never gets to learn how big he is in South Africa. And then according to the South African’s Rodriguez kills himself on stage by setting fire to himself. There is another story that he shoots himself in the head with a gun…

But then after the lifting of the sanctions some intrepid South African music fans and journalists begin a journey to uncover the truth about Rodriguez. Who was he? How did he die? And where did all the royalties from his South African album sales go?

This is a story of dreams being realised. It is the story of a man with unimpeachable integrity. A man who seems to be able to rise above the crap and the shit and the vulgarity. A modern day hero. A saint. A poster boy for humanity. Watch it! (five stars!) ***** The documentary will stay with you long after the credits have rolled. Not to be missed.

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