Movie Review: Searching for Sugar Man

Man on Wire is also a Fabulous Film...
Encountering certain works of art for the first time profoundly changes your perspective on the world.  For me that art list is primarily literary:  T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets, Elizabeth Bishop's  "One Art,"  Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale,"  Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Gandhi's autobiography, Frost's "Birches."  But at the end of all those books and poems I add Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary charting the story of the singer/songwriter "better than Bob Dylan" that disappeared without a trace.  In their search, the documentarians discover a profoundly human story charting the heat of creative inspiration, the power of personal circumstances, and the life that develops when someone is prevented from realizing their calling.

Rodriguez was raised on the gritty streets of Detroit, by a white mother and a Mexican father working low-paying jobs.  Rodriguez himself worked in a variety of factories and was scraping together a living doing demolition when folks noticed his lyrics as he sat, back to the audience, playing to the wall in a smoky bar.  He was quickly signed with major record labels, but none of his records sold and he was dropped from his label two weeks before Christmas.  At this point he disappeared, and conflicting rumors circulated that he committed suicide by lighting himself on fire on stage, or after heckling from the crowd, pulled out a gun and shot himself.

Although Rodriguez didn't sell in the US, he became the voice of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa.  Someone's American girlfriend smuggled Rodriguez's record, "Cold Fact," into the country and it was quickly bootlegged, becoming the anthem of white South Africans agitating for change and widely banned by the repressive South African government.  A record shop owner and a music journalist, both enamoured with his music and determined to settle the mystery of his death, analyzed his lyrics and the liner notes to his records.  What they eventually discovered (and you should stop reading here if you want to be surprised by the movie) was that Rodriguez was alive and had spent the intervening three decades doing hard manual labor on construction sites in Detroit to keep a roof over the heads of his three daughters.

The Anti-Apartheid Anthem
Rodriguez, who hadn't performed in the intervening decades, played six sold out shows to crowds of up to 20,000 in South Africa after his rediscovery.  And he looked entirely natural and completely at peace on stage.  His daughters, teary-eyed, talked about the challenges of his adult life, "rich in many things, but material goods not among them."  And I, rarely ever a cryer in movie theatres, bawled throughout the entire second half of the movie.  Jared asked me, "Why exactly do you identify so strongly with a Latino songwriter destitute in Detroit doing construction work?"  

In the rational world, I suppose, this is a natural question.  But it misses the soul of the movie.  Rodriguez, despite the difficulty of his exterior circumstances, never stopped playing the guitar.  And he never forgot who he was, revealed in the plaid flared 70's era pants and square sunglasses he continues to wear today.  South Africa had to wait for Sugar Man, and even Sugar Man had to wait for Sugar Man.  "He took all the pain and frustration of his circumstances and made something beautiful out of it," concludes the documentary.  That's all we can do, really.  And have faith, that if we wait, Sugar Man will come.  Thanks to Santosh for passing along the right movie at exactly the right time.