'Searching for Sugar Man' finally brings an unsung crooner to light back home

Posted by · 8:52 pm · August 13th, 2012

Saturday night I shelled out cash to see Sundance hit “Searching for Sugar Man.”  Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary tells the incredible story of musician Sixto Rodriguez, who crashed and burned with record sales in the States in his time (the early 1970s) but became an inspiration for South Africans fighting Apartheid throughout the decade and into the 1980s.

Of course, the kicker is Rodriguez (his stage name) never knew about his worldwide success (he was also huge in Australia). Many fans had come to believe the myth — different depending on who’s telling the tale — that he had killed himself on stage in some dramatic fashion.

Rodriguez was re-discovered in the 1990s and actually went to South Africa to perform sold-out concerts, much to the shock and delight of his daughters, who had no idea their father had it in him. But that’s where he belonged, on the stage, telling stories through really great music. Indeed, many of the major music figures who worked with Rodriguez — as the doc points out — consider him on the top tier of their collaborators.

The film is sensational as a discovery piece. Those familiar with the story might not get as much of a rush from it, though. Personally, I’d have preferred to see Bendjelloul go for the jugular on the issue of who did make the money from those overseas sales (royalties were paid to record companies, but they never made it to Rodriguez’s wallet). One interview basically tells that whole story through deflection, but I’d have liked to see more along that track.

Nevertheless, as a kind of ode to art and the drive to create, the film is lovely, strung together by the singer/songwriter’s haunting tunes. Rodriguez has been in the same house for 40 years, working demolition, heavy labor. But he was meant to do this.

“It”s the kind of enchanting story you couldn”t make up,” HitFix’s Katie Hasty wrote of the film out of Sundance, “though all the archetypes are there: music industry mismanagement, fan fiction, revolution, Detroit decay, the essence of rock and roll and redemption, old men made young again.”

Rodriguez performed for a small crowd this evening on the roof of The Standard downtown on Cooper Square, the Manhattan skyline surrounding him as he crooned ditties like “Crucify Your Mind” and, of course, “Sugar Man.” It was a lovely, intimate gathering, and a real pleasure to just have a shot at seeing such an unsung hero of the mic. He’ll be on Letterman tomorrow night, reaching a larger audience still.

Better late than never.

Sony Classics picked up the film after it bowed in Park City and has it primed for an Oscar push later in the season. I think it could get there, even though music docs often face an uphill battle with that branch. This and Amy Berg’s “West of Memphis” would make a handsome pair of nominees for the studio, that’s for sure.

“Searching for Sugar Man” is currently playing in limited release.

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