Sunday, 6 January 2013

Searching For Sugar Man (2012)

Rodriguez, Crucify Your Mind, 1971

Genre: Documentary
Starring: Rodriguez (archive), Steve Segerman, Dennis Coffey
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
IMDB Rating: 8.1/10
My Rating: 8.5/10
Runtime: 1hr 18mins

Synopsis: For me, Searching for Sugar Man has been the second excellent documentary I've seen from 2012, alongside The Imposter. Born in Detroit, Michigan, in July, 1942, to a European / Native-American mother and Mexican father, Jesus Rodriguez was the sixth child of the family which led to his nickname 'Sixto'. His music career was very short-lived releasing only two albums, 1970's Cold Fact and 1971's Coming From Reality. Both albums were recorded while he was still working various labourer jobs around Detroit's poor inner city and playing in dingy bars. Rodriguez's story is fascinating insofar that so little was known about him when he was at the height of his creativity, indeed, those interviewed who saw him perform in the late sixties and early seventies state that he was like a drifter, nobody knew where he lived but they would see him wandering around the city and playing at seemingly random venues. 

Such is the mystery that surrounded him and his death at the peak of his abilities that the documentary relies heavily on talking heads and photo montages along with animation sequences to accompany his music. The film itself begins in Detroit interviewing those who saw him perform, people he worked with in construction and the people who recorded his only two albums, following on from here we find ourselves whisked half-way around the world to Cape Town, South Africa and record-shop owner Steve Segerman. Segerman explains that Rodriguez's music was phenomenally popular in South Africa and inspired middle-class white university students to protest against apartheid and the strict establishment, drawing on the heavily loaded political messages in the lyrics of both albums, which sold in excess of 500,000 copies over a short period of time, meanwhile, as claimed by his distributor in the U.S., Clarence Avant, he probably only sold 6 copies of his records in America. It becomes clear as the documentary moves on that Rodriguez would have been completely unaware of his popularity in South Africa during his lifetime, which raises questions of where the royalties from the record sales went as he lived in relative poverty. 

The documentary has many completely unexpected twists and turns, so much so that I felt the trailer itself gives too much away and so decided to post one of his great songs above instead, I myself had read many reviews about Searching for Sugar Man but I was very glad by the end of the film that I hadn't seen the trailer, as I feel it would have taken from the whole experience. One thing that struck me personally watching this documentary was how such an incredible story will probably never happen again in the music world for a number of reasons. Firstly, Rodriguez's ignorance of his massive popularity and influence in South Africa couldn't be repeated in the 21st century with mass social media via the internet (having said that, there's always a chance that Ronan Keating is an iconic figure of the underground in North Korea and we'll never know) which just did not exist during his time. Secondly, and sadly, it seems that the days of iconic and politically motivated artists such as Bob Marley, Bob Dylan, etc. are over and have been substituted by commercially contrived artists or artists who have so much wealth (ahem, Bono) that promoting themselves as 'looking out for the interests of mankind' comes nice and easy when jet-setting around the world. 

Reminiscent of Donovan and Don McClean in his sound, Rodriguez wrote of his experiences growing up and living in destitute inner-city Detroit and how these people had been abandoned by their masters. Described by record producer Steve Rowland who produced his second album as, 'a wise man, a prophet, way beyond being just a musical artist' and also said 'forget about Bob Dylan!' when it came to Rodriguez's talent, Rowland had worked with Jerry Lee Lewis and Gloria Gaynor and also discovered Peter Frampton and The Cure. I don't want to give away too much as there is so much more to Searching For Sugar Man, it's an emotional and very rewarding documentary and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I am on anti-depressants and suffer from severe anxiety, should I watch this film on a Sunday night? It will raise your spirits.

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