Movie review: Searching for Sugar Man 

  • A still from the documentary "Searching for the Sugar Man", depicting folk-musician Rodriguez

Among music fans in South Africa, everybody knew about the American psychedelic folk musician known simply as Rodriguez. His two albums, 1971’s Cold Fact and 1972’s Coming from Reality were legendary, trippy Dylanesque works with lyrics that spoke to progressive young whites living in the vile apartheid era. Adding to the appeal was the mystery of the sunglass-wearing man, about whom they knew next to nothing, except that he died onstage after shooting himself ... or setting himself on fire ... or something horrible.

The entertaining documentary Searching for Sugar Man follows two Rodriguez fans that set out to find the truth about their idol. Turns out that Rodriguez, a superstar in South Africa, was virtually unknown in his homeland. Though both of his albums received strong reviews from critics, they tanked in American. Rodriguez was dropped by his record company and left the business. Moreover, the singer-songwriter had no idea of his fame half way across the world.

I enjoyed the film but wanted to know more, so I poked around the Internet and came up with the following information not mentioned in the documentary. According to AllMusic, in 1979 Rodriguez was invited to perform some small theater shows in Australia following the chart success there of his album rereleases. A few years ago, he received attention in America and mainland Europe when hip hop artist David Holmes sampled his song “Sugar Man” for use in a mix compilation. Along with Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, Rodriguez has two live albums to his credit, the 1981 Australian recording Rodriguez Alive and the 1998 South African album Live Fact.

Don’t expect detailed explanations for everything Rodriguez-related; some of the American record label owners don’t want to talk about subjects like royalties. But whether you know the basics about Rodriguez or not, the documentary by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul does a fine job presenting a whale of a story.


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