Bigger than Elvis and better than Dylan: this was how the ambiguous Mexican/American folk singer Rodriguez was hailed by a huge fan base of disenfranchised South Africans in the 1970s. Sixto Diaz Rodriguez (who was sometimes credited as Jesus Rodriguez) recorded two albums in his hometown of Detroit, both of which became anti-establishment classics at the height of Apartheid oppression in South Africa. While also popular in Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Australia, Rodriguez was virtually unknown in his own country. In South Africa he became a mythical figure and has inspired various urban legends about what happened to him, including stories about committing suicide on stage during a bad performance.
Swedish documentary filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul is very strategic about how he presents Rodriguez. First the legend of Rodriguez is created through the recollections and folklore told about him in interviews. Then blurry and shadowy photos start to appear in the film, continuing to adhere to Rodriguez’s image as a mysterious figure from the past. As sharper and clearer photos of Rodriguez appear, Searching for Sugar Man begins to uncover more facts about him so that the myth can fade and the reality can be discovered. Rodriguez is revealed to be somebody passionate about music and yet humble to the point that he was apparently exploited so that news of his international fame and royalty payments never made it to him. It also emerges that he was politically active and a strong social campaigner for workers’ rights in a way that makes him more comparable to Harry Belafonte (subject of the excellent documentary Sing Your Song) rather than many of the performers named in the film.
What really lifts Searching for Sugar Man above many other music biopics, or investigative documentaries, is how well it connects Rodriguez to where he came from and the places his music was reaching. Bendjelloul frequently uses beautiful long tracking shots down the empty and rundown streets of Detroit to convey the harsh socio-economic conditions that the city faced. Darkly lit and scored with a subtle mournful industrial soundscape, these shots convey an almost sensory impression of the sad and lonely place that Rodriguez occupied and channelled into his music. By comparison the archival footage of South Africa in the 1970s contains an angry urgency as a growing counterculture against Apartheid swelled in numbers and became more vocal. The importance of music as a revolutionary and anti-establishment force is made clear, as is the influence Rodriguez had so far away from his own home. The extraordinary irony of Searching for Sugar Man is that a man suffering from the massive economic inequalities in America, created music that inspired people in another country to stay strong while facing their own set of oppressive inequalities.
Like Sing Your Song Bendjelloul’s film successfully portrays the link between music and politics and like Autoluminescent: Rowland S. Howard it weaves the music so skilfully throughout the film that the person, music, and time and place they lived in become interchangeable. Every song is used in the film to contextualise or tell the story and it’s difficult not to be swept away by Rodriguez’s melancholic folk/rock and poetic lyrics about hardship. Bendjelloul very successfully portrays Rodriguez as a musical artist who when recorded deserved better in terms of both the power of his music and the grace and kindness he displayed as a person. And yet this is not a bitter film, but a celebration of an artist and the power of art to transcend time and place. The full extent of what happened to Rodriguez is best left discovered while watching the film, although for those not worried about spoilers a quick Google search will reveal all. Regardless of how much prior knowledge is brought to Searching for Sugar Man the film is still extremely satisfying.