Film Review: Searching for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man (2012). Directed by Malik Bendjelloul.

The American Dream is that anyone can succeed if they try hard enough. That didn’t happen for Sixto Rodriguez, a 1970s Detroit singer-songwriter combining the voice of James Taylor with the lyrical ability of Bob Dylan. Firmly in the American folk-music revival counterculture, his songs spoke of working class struggles, hardship and inner city poverty. Maybe it was his Hispanic name, maybe (and unlike Dylan) it was the humility so uncommon for a performer of extraordinary talent.

A mere six sales of two albums meant he was dropped from his label two weeks before Christmas 1971. As Rodriguez returned to poverty working various construction and labouring jobs, his albums took off in South Africa. There he was bigger than the Rolling Stones and his song’s anti-establishment sentiments helped provide the soundtrack for the end of apartheid.

The music industry cheated him of royalties for a reputed half a million sales in South Africa. Unaware of his success abroad, and still living in poverty, Rodriguez made an unsuccessful attempt to become Detroit city mayor, his name was even spelt wrongly on the ballot. Rumours of his on-stage suicide prompted two South African fans to investigate what happened to him. This Academy award winning and Sundance festival winning documentary doesn’t tell the whole story, but it is beautifully presented and what a story.

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