Entertainment Movies

Thursday 22 February 2018

Sweet take on a musical mystery story

Paul Whitington

searching for sugar man

(Club, IFI, 86 minutes)

Director: Malik Bendjelloul Stars: Rodriguez, Malik Bendjelloul


Film critics are a jaundiced, paranoid, stubbornly suspicious bunch, and so unlikely is the premise of Malik Bendjelloul's documentary that there were mutterings about spoofs and hoaxes ahead of the Searching for Sugar Man screening.

Not for long, however, because it soon becomes obvious that the story of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez might be incredible, but it's true.

Rodriguez was a Detroit-born man with Mexican heritage who emerged in that city's salty local music scene in the late 1960s.

A hard-edged urban balladeer who unsentimentally described the tough streets and sad stories of inner city Detroit, Rodriguez was spotted at a small club by producers Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey, who'd previously worked with the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.

They helped get him signed to Sussex Records, and produced his debut album, Cold Fact.

It sounded good, but for some reason no one bought it, and a second record, Coming from Reality, did even worse. In 1972, Rodriguez was dropped from his label, and disappeared. Some said he was dead, others that he had actually killed himself, but wherever he was, a promising music career appeared to be over.

In fact it wasn't. The singer remained unknown and forgotten in America, but in South Africa, a bootleg tape of Cold Fact began doing the rounds in the 1980s and started a Rodriguez craze.

Both his albums were released there on CD in the early 90s, songs like Sugar Man and I Wonder became beloved anthems among Afrikaners and Rodriguez ultimately sold more than half a million albums in South Africa.

The question was, where was he? After an atmospheric, scene-setting opening, Bendjelloul frames his documentary around two South African fans of Rodriguez who set out to find out more about him.

Record shop owner Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman and music writer Craig Bartholemew began searching for Rodriguez.

All they had to go on was his music, but the man himself remained a mystery, and surrounded by dark myths including one grotesque claim that he'd self-immolated after a particularly unsuccessful concert.

It took them several years to connect him with Detroit, and it was a piece of luck involving Segerman's fan website that finally brought them closer to the truth.

Searching for Sugar Man unfolds as a sort of slow-moving mystery thriller, and is entertaining, unlikely and ultimately rather touching.

Segerman and Bartholemew's hunt is punctuated by songs from Rodriguez's early albums: they sound accomplished, even impressive, and seem like classic songs you should already know.

In a sense, Rodriguez's story is no different than those of a thousand other would-be troubadours lost in the scrum of the early 70s folk boom.

But there is something special, a simultaneously honest and elusive quality to his music, that makes him seem like someone different, who should have found a wider audience a long time ago.

The heartwarming thing is -- he now has.

Searching for Sugar Man and its soundtrack will help establish him as a figure of note in American popular music.

And Bendjelloul's fine documentary reveals him as an impressive, inventive and refreshingly unworldly man.

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