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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Searching for Sugar Man

It's great to see a music documentary in local cinemas and it's especially great when the documentary in question is this wonderful.

Also available at Channel 24

What it's about

A documentary about a couple of South African fans who set off on a transatlantic journey to discover what happened to their musical hero, Rodriguez, a 1970s American singer/ songwriter who, though completely unknown in his native country, was a tremendous success in South Africa.

What we thought

There's nothing particularly new about a great, “lost” 1970s musical artiste being discovered years after the fact, usually earning such hyperbolic praise as “better than Dylan!” or “The Beatles of the '70s!” along the way. Nick Drake, Big Star, Townes Van Zandt, Badfinger: the list goes on and on. Singer/ songwriter, Rodriguez, could so easily fit into into that category, if it weren't for one small fact: Rodriguez was HUGE in the 1970s and he was in many ways more popular than even such monolithic counter-cultural icons as Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones.

It's just a pity then that “Rodriguezmania” was localized to a country that was not only thousands of miles away from Rodriguez's native homeland but was one that was rightly shunned, even sanctioned off, by the rest of Western civilization – a country so hopelessly backward that it took a quarter of a century more than the rest of the world for its citizens to gain access to so rudimentary a technology as television. The place, of course, was South Africa at at time when Apartheid's gruesome stranglehold on its people was at its crushing zenith.
What we have in Searching for Sugarman then, is not only a top-drawer music documentary that brilliantly plays out like a globe-trotting mystery adventure, but one that has a very special resonance for South African audiences. While it's true that most South Africans – or, at the very least, most older South Africans – will already be familiar with the revelations of Rodriguez's astonishing fate but, depending on their age, will gain a new-found appreciation for the man himself and/ or an insightful look into South Africa at a time when the rest of the world was steeped in a counter-cultural revolution.

One of the most illuminating parts of the first half of the film is a look at how Rodriguez and particularly his best-loved song, I Wonder, incited thoughts of anti-establishment revolution in the minds of white South African youth – and most especially young white South African musicians. Looking back at it now, it's hard to believe that it was this song over such renowned 60s anti-establishment masterpieces as Gimme Shelter, For What It's Worth or The Times They Are A Changing that would compel South Africa's youth to rise up, but that really says something about just how big a figure Rodriguez was in South Africa at the time.

Like the best music docs though, this fascinating aspect of its subject is only one of its many insights on everything from the cut-throat nature of the music business to the limits of information in a pre-Internet age (their trying to trace Rodriguez's footsteps through his lyrics is too incredible to be made up, for example) to, ultimately, the man himself and his music.

There's no doubt that, like many cult musical figures, Rodriguez's abilities as a musician and songwriter are, at times, blown out of proportion - “Bob Dylan was mild to this guy” being a particularly laughable sentiment – but he was clearly a markedly above average singer-songwriter who should have fit right into the musical scene at the time. There was never any particular reason why he shouldn't have been as big as Cat Stevens or Joni Mitchell or Al Stewart but instead of making millions, he vanished into total obscurity in his home country.

Despite the potential spoilers in other reviews and in the film's marketing and in so many South Africans already knowing his story, I'm going to refrain from giving any specific details about Rodriguez's fate. The profoundly moving second half of the film and the rest of the story is for you to discover yourself, dear readers. I will say this though, because of the lasting powers of his music and revelations about the man himself, the film ends up on an extremely uplifting note, making Searching for Sugarman – despite some of its bleakness and apparent tragedy – one of the year's must-see feel-good films.

It's nice to see Ster Kinekor Nouveau devoting valuable space and time to documentaries at at last, even music documentaries, but they have their work cut out for them trying to find a more moving, more insightful and just plain wonderful than Malik Bendjelloul's Searching for Sugarman.


  1. Growing up as a musician in SA during Rodriguez's time, although I enjoyed his music, I, nor any of my friends were NOT incited with anti-estabishment thoughts. My band struggled to get anywhere because only black and Afrikaans music were considered marketable in SA. Thanks to the sanctions we missed out on all our musical heroes of the time. I did NOT enjoy having bombs going off in the pubs where we played, which were planted by Mandela's wonderful 'fair' regime. Stick to criticizing movies, as you don't appear to know too much about being around in the 60s in SA.

  2. Thanks for the insight but I freely admit to not knowing anything about living in South Africa in the '60s. I'm 30 years old, which means I honestly don't remember anything about Apartheid in full swing so obviously I can't lay any sort of claim to personal insights or experiences about the period. I was simply reacting to the way the period was portrayed in the film itself. I'm not all that surprised to hear that some of the claims made about Rodriguez, shall we say, stretched the truth a bit - but the interviews are with die-hard fans so it's not that surprising and I'm not really going to hold this against it.