Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man is filled with aerial views of sleeping cities and long shots of desolate streets with the winter steam rising. What people we see on those streets are obscured by space, anonymous, and dwarfed by the metal and brick overhead and grizzled concrete below. On top of the images, bordering on abstraction as the camera tracks laterally, is a forceful and pained guitar strumming and voice. “Sugar man,” he sings, “won’t you hurry, ’cause I’m tired of these scenes…won’t you bring back all those colors to my dreams?” The lyric is addressed to a drug dealer, whose bag of narcotics carries the means to escape from a dreary existence of impoverishment and busted hope. “You’re the answer,” he sings to the sugar man, “that makes my questions disappear.” The song is the soundtrack to reality.
At times it’s a story that almost beggars belief. Searching For Sugar Man, if you’ve not seen it already, is a documentary about Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, the 70-year-old singer-songwriter from Detroit who released two glorious, largely unheard albums some four decades ago, then promptly vanished without trace. Various grisly rumours about his unfortunate life – murder, suicide, jail time – began to circulate in the intervening years. Meanwhile his records had become huge in different corners of the world. Not least in South Africa, where his baroque-folk protest songs had become beacons of hope amongst anti-Apartheid campaigners.
The documentary Searching for Sugar Man opens in Detroit on Friday, August 10th, 2012, telling the bizarre true story of Rodriguez. Haven’t heard of Rodriguez? He is a musician who was found in the Detroit area in the late 60s/early 70s, a protest crooner not unlike Bob Dylan with a smooth yet powerful voice. He was a complete flop in the states, although he was remembered fondly by all those who knew him.
If you’ve ever heard the music of folk dude Sixto Rodriguez, you’ll know the Sugar Man – the spectral drug dealer at the heart of the Mexican-American songwriter’s best-known track of the same name. Via Rodriguez’s sparse acoustic guitar and vocal, the Sugar Man slips his customers horror, salvation and false friends, as well as drugs. At the song’s end a woozy whistle from the guitar searches for new highs and gets lost up there. And it’s up there where the singer has been hiding, according to Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, whose reality-stretching documentary Searching For Sugar Man tells Rodriguez’s remarkable story.
Coinciding with the release of the film, here comes the “Original Motion Picture Soundtrack”. What it actually is, rather than a real-life soundtrack, is a compilation drawing tracks from Rodriguez’s two fabulous albums: seven from Cold Fact, four from Coming From Reality (half his released oeuvre), plus the three previously unissued cuts first heard on the Light in the Attic reissue of Coming From Reality. The impact of these bleak missives is undimmed. It is as good a place to start as any – especially as there is a note saying that “Rodriguez receives royalties from the sale of this release”. As the film makes clear, money made from some previous reissues did not make it to him. But with his discography so slim, the albums themselves still seem attractive. Opening with “Sugar Man”, the cards are laid down immediately. This is one of the most bare-wired, lacerating drug songs ever. Rod’s voice is dark and compelling, his songs hypnotic dramas. The logic of why this has been issued is sound. Buy this, and then get the albums. – Kieron Tyler
There’s nothing better than a good old rock ‘n’ roll Cinderella story, with evil executives screwing singers and songwriters out of their earnings, rock stars falling into oblivion, and a final comeback from obscurity into a well-deserved fame and recognition. The story of Rodriguez (née Sixto Díaz Rodríguez, because he was the sixth child of his family) is exactly like that, only better, because the hero is a 70 year-old Latin rock star.
An American woman in a modest black cocktail dress has wolfish green eyes that flash with neurotic sincerity as she tells me about struggles over food security in California and sweat lodges and how she now lives in Wilderness in the Cape and misses her family. We’re on the Festival shuttle bus going to see Searching for Sugar Man – the brand new documentary about seventies singer-songwriter Rodriguez, the Latino Dylan who, bizarrely, was only ever popular in this country. “He’s much bigger than Elvis and the Rolling Stones here,” someone claims in the film. It’s true-ish. His extraordinary record Cold Fact (1970) has gone platinum here ten times over. Anyway, I’m humouring her, thinking ah another Festival kook, when I hear her say, “My father’s seventy now but he’s still in good shape. He’s still a handsome man.”
There are several entrancing mysteries circulating in “Searching for Sugar Man,” a hugely appealing documentary about fans, faith and an enigmatic Age of Aquarius musician who burned bright and hopeful before disappearing. One mystery involves its title subject, a Detroit singer-songwriter known as Rodriguez who, after being discovered in a dive bar, cut a well-regarded record in 1969. The album, “Cold Fact,” earned good reviews and four Billboard stars, but it bombed in the United States, and Rodriguez faded from view. Where he went and why are just a few of the questions that a Swedish filmmaker, Malik Bendjelloul, sought in answering the riddle of Rodriguez.