Searching for Sugarman is quite possibly one of the most moving documentaries of all time. Winner at the Academy, BAFTA and Sundance Film Festival Awards, the film also won rave reviews and other awards all across the US and around the world. The death of its young, talented director, Malik Bendjelloul, in Sweden last May only adds to the heartbreaking mystique of this project, which is bound to be a classic in filmmaking.
I heard about the film when it was nominated for the Oscar, and nearly watched it during a residency in Spain in January 2013, where one of the fellows was an Academy member and had brought along copies of films he was going to vote on. We never got the chance to watch it, and I must confess I wasn’t that interested in the film, my skepticism mostly coming from my distrust for the Academy, its hype and its marketing machine. I never thought about it until I heard of Bendjelloul’s death. I was in Paris, and the outpouring of emotion in the French online press rekindled my curiosity about the film.
A few days ago, I happened to find a copy of the DVD at the New York Performing Arts Library, and decided to check it out. As I was watching the documentary that evening, about fifteen minutes into the story, I nearly fell off my seat.
As many of you know, Searching for Sugarman is about Mexican-American songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, who released two albums in the early ‘70s to resounding indifference, and who sank to obscurity in the US. But not in South Africa, where, unbeknownst to him, he became a leading voice of the anti-apartheid movement, and where he was virtually a superstar. The film takes you through this fascinating narrative of rediscovery and resurrection, and gives you such a deep insight into the soul of this immensely gifted, humble and generous man.
The film plays much of his music as the soundtrack, and this was where my experience became my own personal journey of rediscovery itself. Back in 1971, the year before Marcos declared martial law, my siblings and I were big fans of this unknown, mysterious singer named Sixto Rodriguez. Like the South Africans, nobody in Manila knew who he was or where he came from. In fact, no one in Manila was even aware how popular his music was in South Africa. But he was possibly the biggest hit of that year, at least among a certain crowd of, shall we say, more sophisticated listeners. His single, the heart-rending I Think of You, played every hour on the hour over DZRJ and DZUW, the twin stations that, back then, played the most cutting edge music of the time. These were the only two stations my siblings and I listened to, and I would spend many hours just waiting for the song to come on. I remember my younger sister Diana coming home one day to tell me she had a surprise: I Think of You had just been released as a single, with the equally haunting To Whom It May Concern on Side B. We played the single over and over, never getting tired of it. Diana even learned to play the chords on a guitar, and often sang it to me. Plucking the opening bars of I Think of You became our standard for guitar playing: Diana did it well, but my fingers always got tangled and I sucked. We kept wondering who this singer was: I thought he was probably Filipino, possibly a reclusive artist from Baguio, where all the best folk singers were coming from. Diana managed to find a rather blurry picture in a local music magazine, and I thought that face confirmed my suspicion, that this was some kind of mystery Filipino artist. We even came up with a fantastic theory, that Rodriguez was probably the pseudonym of one of the DZUW DJs, and that his music was produced and recorded by the station itself, for why else would the other stations not play it?
I called my older sister in Los Angeles to tell her of my wonderful discovery. It turned out she and my oldest brother also were big fans of Rodriguez. My oldest brother, who back then had a rock and roll band, in fact used to play his music at the band’s gigs all the time. My sister, who used to deejay at DZUP, the student station of the University of the Philippines, had a copy of the entire album, Coming to Reality, and swears she had played the album so much at the station her copy was virtually all worn down.
The fate of Rodriguez’s music in Manila did not end as gloriously as it did in South Africa. In 1972, Marcos declared martial law and sequestered all radio stations. That put a definite end to any airplay of Rodriguez’s two hits (To Whom It May Concern was already starting to pick up a lot of notice as well). Marcos not only banned rock music, but also portraits of any musicians with long hair, calling the look decadent and demonic. Rodriguez, with his lush, long hair, would certainly have been censored. The military raided the UP campus, and I believe everything in the radio station was either confiscated or destroyed. I never knew, until I saw Searching for Sugarman, that most of Rodriguez’s music was anti-establishment and political, but perhaps the Marcos intelligence people knew, and that was enough reason to put him on the censors’ radar.
That definitely consigned Rodriguez’s music to extinction in Manila. But for years thereafter I continued to wonder who this musician was. I used to keep asking Diana, “Remember that Sixto Rodriguez, the brilliant guy who just vanished into thin air?” We didn’t know about the spectacular myths that sprouted in South Africa about his alleged death; we just presumed this guy probably just decided to stop singing, and wanted to be left alone.
Rediscovering Sixto Rodriguez in Searching for Sugarman has closed over forty years of wondering and questioning for me. I still love the music, anachronistic as it may sound today. These songs were part of the soundtrack of our years of innocence, the final year before the Philippines would be plunged into one of the darkest eras in its history. It amazes me to realize how, back then, we shared nearly the same aspirations as the South Africans, though their struggle was vastly different from ours. We wanted to change the world, we wanted love to reign supreme, and we paid attention to the musicians who told us we could and we should. We would never be so young or so hopeful again.