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‘Searching for Sugar Man’

by Kaori Shoji

Ever heard of a Detroit-based musician by the name of Sixto Rodriguez? If so, you’re extraordinarily well informed, or perhaps you spent some time in South Africa during the late 1970s. But if you’re unaware of the man or his music, “Searching for Sugar Man” is the best place to start, and the payoff that comes with discovering the life and work of this virtually unknown artist is huge.

Directed by Sweden’s Malik Bendjelloul, “Searching for Sugar Man” tore out of nowhere to bag the best documentary Oscar a few weeks ago, and since then the global music scene hasn’t been the same. What if there was another Sixto Rodriguez buried in the woodwork somewhere? Indeed, parts of Rodriguez’s personal history come off like a PR agent’s wet dream. Here was this Mexican-American balladeer who signed up with Detroit label Sussex Records back in the late 1960s and cut two albums: “Cold Fact” and “Coming From Reality.” The man’s soulful voice packed a whole lot of emotion into his kick-the-establishment lyrics. After about 15 minutes in the limelight, in which Rodriguez was compared with Bob Dylan, his name fizzled out and Sussex unceremoniously dumped him. In the film, Sussex founder and CEO Clarence Avant claims Rodriguez sold “six records” and that was it.

It gets a whole lot better from here. According to legend (one of several) a young woman tourist visiting America from Cape Town brought back Rodriguez’s “Cold Fact” as a gift for her boyfriend, and by the mid-1970s, everyone in South Africa was listening to Rodriguez.

The album sold a whopping 500,000 copies and the Afrikaners embraced Rodriguez as their personal hero, while placing his music at the forefront of the antiapartheid movement. Rodriguez became the soul music of South Africa, with the man himself and the people at Sussex being completely unaware.

“Searching for Sugar Man” could have wrung out the sentiment but Bendjelloul drops all pretension to tell the story in standard documentary style. It turns out, though, that this adds an effective touch of hard-boiled detective-story ambience. The sleuthing was conducted by a pair of hard-core Rodriguez fans in Cape Town: record shop owner “Sugar” Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, who at the start of their inquiries in the late 1990s were convinced that Rodriguez was dead. “We heard that he set himself alight on stage,” says Segerman. Apparently, that was the theory going around Cape Town. Not to be discouraged, the pair decided to “follow the money” in the Detroit music industry to unearth what exactly happened to their idol.

Watching “Searching for Sugar Man” reminds you of how the light of a star appears on the firmament long, long after its explosion. Accordingly, the takeaway lesson here probably has more to do with the long years Rodriguez spent post-1970, when he was not seeking fame, wealth or even a little notoriety. And then he found it anyway. Such a story could never happen in this information age — and pre-Internet fairy tales don’t get much better than this.