I became aware of “Searching For Sugar Man” when it was showing at the Harvard Exit Theatre last year. The movie poster drew me, but I couldn’t attend any of the showings and soon forgot about it. The film’s slow rise to acclaim—one that has drawn awards and accolades from film festivals such as Sundance, Tribeca and L.A. Film Fest—in some ways parallels the film’s narrative of a mythic folksinger whose greatest success happened after he seemingly slipped into obscurity. Our friends at Rain City Video, however, will not let such a gem of a film slip into obscurity, and the recently released DVD came to me highly recommended. The many reviews and synopses for “Searching For Sugar Man” will tell you that it is a documentary about a forgotten musical icon or a great triumph of investigative journalism—or both. This is all true, but there is more to the story than that.
Without even attempting to do so, the film takes many lauded pursuits and turns them on their heads, revealing simpler values that we intuitively hold in higher regard. Fame, wealth, image, title and recognition are inadvertently laid bare as we watch and learn about the film’s eponymous “Sugar Man.” The documentary does not actively criticize or question these pursuits and thus does not exhibit the cynicism often found in works that do. Sugar Man is a person, a working class man named Rodriguez who achieved these pursuits but did not allow them to define his life—a life focused instead on quiet dignity and compassion.
The film begins by explaining how influential the Detroit-born musical artist was within South African counter-culture—as huge as The Beatles. One copy of a cassette tape proliferated in an initial bootleg exchange that led to more than half a million records being sold over multiple re-issues despite a ban by the apartheid government. So threatening were some of the songs that officials would scratch out tracks to prevent their broadcast. Rodriguez had provided the soundtrack to a counter-culture movement similar to that initiated by John Lennon in the U.S. This shift ultimately led to the end of apartheid. Despite this, nothing was known about Sugar Man besides the name Rodriguez. Apocryphal tales of him committing suicide during his final performance were spread and seemed plausible to many, as no more albums were released after 1971 and he disappeared from the public eye.
The truth was more banal. The power of Rodriguez’ soulful music was initially recognized by a few people who invested in recording his work, but Rodriguez was never motivated to acquire fame for its own sake. After sluggish sales of the first two albums, no one was interested in producing more albums by Sugar Man, but those early works caried their spark into the world and grew in what would have seemed an unlikely place—at the troubled, southern tip of another continent. It inspired others to grow confident, proud and courageous. The little spark eventually ignited the soul of an entire nation reaching to be better…and the world was changed. The story of Sugar Man’s two albums is a story of how music can change the world for the better when the soul of it is sincere compassion.
The film reveals more about Rodriguez and his impact on those who knew him personally. The people in his wake hold equal measures of awe and wonder—with a dash of confusion. It’s as if they have had an encounter with the supernatural. What I find most intriguing is that the documentary imparts this same effect on its audience at moments.
As viewers, we are taken on a journey to meet a Shaman of the highest order, and the film does this with humility and subtlety. At the outset we think we know what it is we seek—a lost folk musician, perhaps a has-been, another casualty of the fame game. As we progress we begin to have a sense that the journey is other than, greater than what we thought it to be. By the time we actually meet the Shaman we have already been so affected by him that we come into his presence in awe. We feel humility with burning intensity, arising from the friction between who we are being and who we are capable of being if we will simply allow ourselves. We are silenced with awe when we first recognize that his medicine has been at play all the while. I know I was. I still am. It is also apparent in the eyes of everyone who is interviewed in the film.
Rodriguez, the unlikely superstar, turns the world but doesn’t bother to use the turn-signal, leaving us to replay the route in our heads as we attempt to figure out how we arrived at our destination. As we piece together what has just happened we barely notice that Rodriguez has already journeyed out ahead of us to continue his work.