Searching for Sugarman
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul Club, IFI, Dublin, 86 min
IMAGINE THE story of Nick Drake – that mournful English singer who died in underserved obscurity – with a happy ending and you will have some idea what to expect from this terrific, staggeringly unlikely documentary.
In the early 1970s, a clever American singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez recorded two highly tuneful, beautifully arranged albums for an indie
label. As far as the artist and his management were concerned,
the records made no impact whatsoever. Rodriguez abandoned dreams of stardom and went back to working on construction sites.
Meanwhile, 8,000 miles away, liberal white rock enthusiasts in South Africa were gobbling up the LPs. As one of the contributors to Searching for Sugar Man explains, flip through the average South African music fan’s collection in the 1970s and Cold Fact, Sixto’s first record, would appear as often as Abbey Road or Bridge Over Troubled Water.
Isolated from mainstream media during apartheid, Rodriguez’ fans traded myths about their idol’s supposed demise. Had he shot himself on stage? Did he die of an overdose? The film somewhat cheekily purports to tell its viewers a detective story. In fact, the middle-aged South African who uncovered the truth did so simply by phoning Rodriguez’ producer. The singer was, it transpired, living simply in his hometown of Detroit. Successful tours of South Africa followed.
Featuring animation and powerful footage of a crumbling Motor City, Searching for Sugar Man, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, a young Swede, exhibits an agreeably light touch throughout. A shy man, Rodriguez does not prove to be the world’s most exhilarating interview, but it is impossible to remain unmoved by the insouciance with which he dismisses failure and greets subsequent rediscovery.
None of this would matter if the music didn’t stand up. Happily, Sixto Rodriguez’ early songs turn out to be terrific: a little like the work of a less anesthetised James Taylor.