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Movie Review: "Searching For Sugar Man," Go, Watch, Listen

Ashley Riegle |
October 17, 2012 | 1:30 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Rodriguez's album, "Cold Fact" (Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)
Rodriguez's album, "Cold Fact" (Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)
Created by Swedish filmmaker, Malik Bedjelloul, "Searching for Sugar Man" examines the music and mystery of folk singer and songwriter, Sixto Rogriguez.

The documentary aims to uncover the truth about the disappeared artist and how his music made an impact on the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.

In 1970, the artist known simply as "Rodriguez" released a series of beautifully written and sung anti-establishment songs on an album titled, "Cold Fact". His lyrics and melodies were considered by some in the music industry at that time to be comparable with that of the great Bob Dylan. However, despite a temporary record deal, his music never took off in the states. A minuscule number of albums were sold in the US, and his record deal was cancelled before it ever really started.

Half-way around the world in Cape Town, South Africa, "Cold Fact" made it's way to the hands of South African musicians and music fans desperate for the kind of soulful anti-establishment message Rodriguez sang. 

It is not surprising why they gravitated toward his album. Its lyrics spoke to resistance and counter-culture, and could be applied to resistance struggles virtually anywhere. 

For young Afrikaners experiencing the Anti-Apartheid movement, it was an extremely historical shifting period. There was mass violence, protests, racism, and a heavily controlled government propaganda machine. 

Music played on government-owned radio stations in South Africa during the Apartheid era, had to be sanctioned by the government. Rodriguez's lyrics were certainly not the sort of ideology the government wanted its nation's young people to be exposed to- which makes it even more incredible that it spread and generated the fan base that it did. In one scene in the film, the filmmakers take cameras into Apartheid government archives- all music records the government disapproved of were scratched so they could not be played on the radio, including "Cold Fact."

Thanks to the rebelliousness of youth and tape recording technology, people were able to share Rodriguez's music person-to-person, and it miraculously spread like wild-fire.

Bendjelloul first learned of Rodriguez's fame in South Africa from a super-fan and record shop owner named Stephen Segerman. Segerman and his friends, who were longtime fans in South Africa influenced by Rodriguez's life and the mystery surrounding his life, set up a website in 1997 entitled "The Great Rodriguez Hunt". Following this and other leads, Benjelloul began an incredible quest to find Rodriguez.

The documentary follows the filmmakers' quest to find out if Rodriguez is still alive, track him down and bring him to South Africa, which they succeed in doing multiple times over. It is incredible watching a legend who didn't know he was a legend in a foreign land for 35 years pack a stadium full of thousands of fans and revel in it as though not a day had elapsed. 

Rodriguez is a humble man who never earned what he rightly should have for his brilliant tracks. It is obvious in the film that record companies took advantage of him at least a handful of times. But Rodriguez doesn't seem to dwell on that.

Living an extremely modest life in the same Detroit house for 40 years, Rodriguez is a man who inspired a generation of young people a world away to believe and fight for change. 

The happiness Rodriguez and his daughters derived from traveling to South Africa a handful of times and playing for fans is apparently all the reward he needs in life. The majority of any money he has ever made he has given away to friends and family. And still his music plays on. And finally his story has been told. 

Rodriguez rocking out on stage (Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)
Rodriguez rocking out on stage (Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

If that's not a reason to believe in humanity, I don't know what is.

"Searching for Sugar Man" is a terrifically beautiful film. Incorporating vintage footage- both still photographs and old video recordings- as well as subtle digital renderings, the combination of visual imagery is seriously captivating. Together it created a feeling of fantasy.

And then there is the music. This film offers not only an incredible story, but a mesmerizing soundtrack. It is truly incredible that Rodriguez's music did not take off in the US. It is soulful and personal and counter-revolutionary and honest.

"Searching for Sugar Man" was chosen as the opening film at the Sundance Film Festival, Sheffield DocFest and filmmaker Michael Moore's, Traverse City Film Festival. It won both the Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best international documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. 

"Searching for Sugar Man" opened in theaters in the US on July 27. Make sure to check it out in theaters while you still can. It's worth it.

Watch the trailer here:

To locate theaters and showtimes in the LA area click here.

Reach staff reporter Ashley Riegle by email. Follow her on Twitter here



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