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Film Review

Searching for Sugar Man

In the early 1970's, a Detroit musician, Sixto Rodriguez, became hugely important in the South African music scene. He wrote and played his own songs, mostly social protest and dropping out themes. This was still the era of Apartheid, when dissent was severely punished, often with imprisonment or worse, and the avenues of protest were very limited. He only produced two albums, Cold Fact and Coming to Reality, but his songs became immensely popular with young whites disenchanted with the repressive white regime. At least 500,000 of his albums were sold there, an impressive number in a country of only 40 million. Strangely, despite his Bob Dylan like lyrics and style, he completely bombed in the United States, and quickly became forgotten. But not so in South Africa. His songs were rediscovered, but his life and death remained a mystery. Some said he committed suicide on stage after his last performance, by pouring gasoline on himself and lighting it. Others said that he shot himself on stage. Whatever the truth, he disappeared.

About five years ago, Malik Bendjelloul, a Swedish documentary filmmaker, heard about this story and became intrigued, which led to four years of sleuthing, the discovery of many people who had known Rodriguez, and finally "Searching for Sugar Man". But no one knew what had become of Rodriguez or where he was buried. His American producers had been baffled as to why his albums didn't sell here, but the film doesn't explore that thread. One of his producers said that one of the songs was the saddest he had ever heard, plays it on camera, and nearly comes apart. He still could not understand why it didn't catch on in America. Another interview with Clarence Avant, the former head of Motown Records, is riveting. A Capetown record store owner, Stephen Segerman, had always loved Rodriguez's music, and decided to try to find out what happened to the singer. All attempts led to dead ends, so he put up a website dedicated to Rodriguez, and pleaded with anyone who knew Rodriguez to contact him. Months pass, but one day he gets a message from Eva Rodriguez, Rodriguez's daughter, living in Detroit. I don't want to reveal more, but suffice to say that the rest of the story is astonishing.

Bendjelloul has made a marvelous documentary film that unravels a decades long mystery. He uses talking heads from three continents, some clever animation, good location shooting in both Detroit and South Africa, and more than anything, Rodriguez's own music. It seems like a synthesis of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, in the best sense, but in no way derivative. The framework of the film is the attempt to trace the royalties, which only add to the mystery. This is an accomplished film on an unlikely subject, which shows what a good documentary filmmaker can do with what seems like slim material. Every minute of "Searching for Sugar Man" is engaging, and rich with poignancy and humanity. There are unanswered questions here, which may never be answered. But I loved this film, and wanted it to continue beyond its brief 85 minutes. Many stayed to hear more of Rodriguez's music as the credits rolled. Just opened at the Clay and a perfect Labor Day film.

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