‘Searching for Sugarman’ – a film review

searchingforsugarman1.jpgWe saw a real “feel good” documentary last night, that came highly recommended, and came away wanting to share it with others. ‘Searching for Sugarman’ is a story of validation, both personal and artistic, in a world where one’s seeming insignificance can never be presumed. It’s about a singer/songwriter whose work never caught on with his own countrymen, but contributed to the canon of social change in another land.

“Sugarman” refers to Sixto Rodriguez, or simply ‘Rodriguez’. In his two obscure albums in the early 1970’s, his voice cuts a high, clear path above a simple MoTown combo sound, singing lyrics which are at once sardonic and challenging, but oddly at peace with the rough edges of the society his songs criticize.  His lyrics and vocals suggest a blend of Nick Drake on mood-elevators, with an edge of Dylan to provoke the mind. It is surprising that his songs never caught on in the United States.

The name Sixto may refer to his being the sixth born child to immigrant parents, and it is unclear whether this was self-chosen, or actually used in his childhood Detroit, Michigan. Some of his songs are attributed to ‘Jesus Rodriguez’, others to ‘Sixto’. It doesn’t matter. What does, is that unknown to Rodriguez, his music struck a chord with the people of South Africa during its years of foment. Mandela was in jail,  apartheid was the rule, and that nation was a police state, oppressed. Certain of his songs were banned from air-play, and thus assured brisk sales of his albums, and wide exchange of boot-legged cassettes.

The story of this musician, as brought to film, becomes a kind of George Bailey story, in that even a minor artist may never realize the impact he has beyond his ken. Thematically, that is wonderful to explore, and the core of the movie. Viewed from an innocent perspective, the documentary is wonderful, and deserves its accolades. It’s also pleasing to consider that it can only do good for its subject, whose work does deserve the attention that passed him by when the tracks were new.  Like the documentary ‘Winnebago Man’, it  lifts a life out of a fabled-state, and brings a Lazarus back into the world. It’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’, only these are real people who left a mark, never knew it, and lived to learn that they had touched others.

That there are those who have taken issue with this film for overlooking certain facts in Rodriguez’s touring and performing history matters not a whit to me: Why let the facts stand in the way of a great story? That Rodriguez played as well in Australia and New Zealand doesn’t alter the unique story of how his art was appreciated in and affected the people of South Africa. This story concerns that special perception, and I’ll not quibble with the small minds of nay-sayers who have missed the point.

Hunt up a copy of ‘Searching for Sugarman’, and go find a copy of the film’s compilation album, and bask in the joy of a good musician’s re-discovery!

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