Most of us do love a good mystery, especially if we think we have a shot at untangling the threads, chasing down the loose strands, and rewinding the ball of yarn into a tidy package. Searching for Sugar Man throws us one such ball of yarn, matted, shedding, with lots of strands hanging out, named Sixto Rodriguez, a.k.a. Jesus Rodriguez, a silver-tongued singer-songwriter from the 70’s, who made two records and then disappeared in plain sight for 30 years.
The film takes us back to the 70’s, when the tall, thin Rodriguez, in his black shades, hat, and jacket, walked around his native Detroit, performing his soulful music in various dives. Always enigmatic, he would sometimes perform with his back to the audience; people in the recording business wondered if he was homeless — he would only meet them on street corners. His records came out, and then… nothing! No sales. He packed it in and just slipped away.
Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, bootleg copies of his albums travelled with a tourist to South Africa, where they really caught fire. Afrikaners were in the midst of rebelling against their Apartheid government, and Rodriguez’s anti-establishment blues and protest songs were just what they were waiting for. Cutting to the chase: For 30 years, he has been “bigger than Elvis,” in South Africa! And someone has obviously been making a lot of money from record sales.
Though rumors circulated that he had committed suicide on-stage, a couple of devoted fans managed — pre-Google era — to track him to Detroit via a reference to Dearborn (a Detroit suburb) in one of his songs. What they discovered was a man, very much alive, who had spent his life doing construction work and living very simply. He has three grown daughters. We learn nothing of a wife, except that she is/was Native American. He himself is the son of Mexican immigrants, blue collar workers. Has he been writing music in the last 30 years? Who knows? He has gone on triumphant tours in South Africa and played before huge, adoring crowds several times. Most of the time, he continues living as he always has.
This romantic figure stuns us with his zen-like acceptance of all that has befallen him. Unlike your average person, he seems to have no hatred, resentment, or rancor towards the record company that withheld profits from him all these years — and especially withheld news that his songs were indeed great, and that he was/could have been a major songwriter. We hear that he gives all the money he now makes from his tours to his family and friends. So, another mystery: Why does he cling to his lifestyle, instead of exploring the little bit of fame that might still be coming his way?
The film, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, shrouds the story of Rodriguez in mystery, playing his haunting music throughout. The photography is beautiful: panoramas of downtown Capetown surrounded by mountains, smoky shots of seedy venues where he played in the 70’s, hometown Michigan streets where he trudges through the snow even today. Yet, we are kept on the edges of our seats, wanting to learn more about this intriguing fellow. We root for the underdog when, at long last, he experiences his 15 minutes of fame and gains some recognition for his musical talents. We wonder what might have been. We fall in love with his voice; his Dylanesque rhymes; his strange, Christopher Walken-like diction.
For those of us who always want to know more (me), the best bet is to buy the album now sold in the movie theatre. It’s all there in the songs: The drugs (“Sugar Man”); the gigs (“A Most Disgusting Song”); the sad disappointments, political and otherwise (“Sandrevan Lullaby”); the hints of romance (“Like Janis”). “Street Boy” paints a picture of the singer talking to himself (and I guess he took his own advice):
You’ve been out too long
Ain’t you got enough sense to go home
You’re gonna end up alone
You need some love and understanding
Not that dead-end life you’re planning
What if he clings to his workaday life because that’s the anchor keeping him moored to a sane existence? It could be there are religious or 12-step programs at play, too. Lots of questions abound, but there’s no question that this is a great, life-affirming movie that should not be skipped over.
“I’ll Slip Away”
And you can keep your symbols of success
Then I’ll pursue my own happiness
And you can keep your clocks and routines
Then I’ll go mend all my shattered dreams
Maybe today, yeah
I’ll slip away