Searching for Sugarman

A singer named Rodriguez, whose first album was called Cold Fact, is the subject of this documentary. Yet cold facts are in short supply in this movie, and once I stopped asking questions to myself like a probing journalist, and just went along with the living portrait that was laid out before me, my mind began to rest and accept the movie for what it is.

Rodriguez is a singer whose talent and songwriting were described in the early 1970s on a par with Dylan. However, he had a Latin name, and his records did not sell well. He stopped recording and vanished from the scene. Stories were told of his suicide. Years later, the albums resurfaced in South Africa at the height of the anti-apartheid movement. Rodriguez’s lyrics about liberation and freedom became a rallying cry for whites fed up with the apartheid regime’s repression. Many South Africans bought Rodriguez music which was described as the soundtrack to their lives. A generation of protesters loved Rodriguez. In the late 1990s, a record seller decided to explore whatever happened to him.

Here is where the movie begins to deepen the legend of the singer. A resurrection of sorts takes place in the movie during several crowded concerts in South Africa. At this point, we become acquainted with Rodriguez’s three lovely daughters who have taken after their father in saintliness and humility and grace.

Rodriguez accepted his bad luck, and continued to work manual jobs (There is no shame in hard work he says humbly). He earned his degree in philosophy, while running for mayor of Detroit. All the while he has been living in the same rundown house in Detroit, his heat provided by a wood stove. The filmmaker is fond of shooting the musician as he walks on the cracked sidewalks of Detroit caked with unshoveled snow.

There are stylized cartoon images of the singer and his daughters as they arrived triumphantly in South Africa. The filmmaker’s– Malik Bendjelloul– approach reminded me of the line from the John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When fact becomes legend, print the legend.” It doesn’t mean that Malik has deliberately obscured a harder truth, but after a while the questions keep coming. Why didn’t the artist get paid for his work? Who is managing his career now? Who were the mothers of his children? Why did he not pursue his career after the comeback concerts in 1998?

The movie provides a short focused account to satisfy the two South Africans who set out to discover what happened to Rodriguez. In the process of watching the movie, many more people, (I assume not just me) would like to know what happened after the concerts in South Africa.


About Patricia Markert

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