Warning : Film spoilers ahead
All images in used in this article have been extracted from the documentary.
I spent three and a half years smoking and writing bad poetry in a design school, where I learned close to nothing about designing. But in this small span of time, my friends and I managed to run a film club for my fellow students and screen a few good films, often surprising ourselves. Good surprises.
In the early summer of 2012, it must’ve been late February, we picked a few Oscar nominees to be screened as a part of a four-film fest. Two in each week. People would come and sit on plastic chairs, trying not to answer their mobile phones while paying attention to the films playing before them and evading mosquitoes in the flickering dark. On a Wednesday, we screened a documentary that had been chosen in the best documentary category for the Academy Awards that year. There was a yellowish-orange poster of a long-haired musician walking with a guitar slung across his back. We put it up in various joints of the college. The film was called Searching for Sugar Man. My first judgement was that it’s about a drugged musician’s story of how he spiralled down the success ladder. The poster and film’s name had all the cliches of a typical American music documentary about the journey of one of their own musicians. Naturally, a lot of people turned up.
The lights in the projector room shut and we pressed play. The projector lit up the screen.
After an hour and a half when I switched the lights back on, I was convinced that Searching for Sugar Man is one of the most beautiful and important films of our times. I was also convinced this film is a strong dose of hope and revival which the world of today deserves and a film which every workingman must watch. I remember seeing people leave the space teared, wondering how to articulate their awe.
The film follows the search of two South Africans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydoma for a musician named Sixto Rodriguez. He recorded two fantastic albums in Detroit, in the early seventies, and then went off radar completely. While the Americans failed to acknowledge or even be aware of his incredible talent, he was discovered on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean by South Africa, where the apartheid was brewing up rebels. Sixto’s unflinching, honest perspective of the trouble and chaos that surrounded him in America became anthems for the youth of South Africa who were suppressed and denied access to the world outside them by the Government back then. Rodriguez became a cult, a hero, a prophet, inspiring a wave of South African musicians to introspect about subjects such as anti-establishement, sex, truth and the idea of freedom. As he grew more and more popular here, rivalling the Beatles and Elvis Presley and entering middle class households’ record shelves, he remained unknown and forgotten in the USA. Years passed, rumours of him committing suicide on stage in various grotesque ways moved around and people were convinced that Rodriguez didn’t exist. He was presumed dead.
But he was alive. And re-discovered in Detroit thirty years later. Still working as a hard labourer. Still humble. Still sincere.
As Rodriguez is interviewed years later, we finally see the simplicity and minimalism in his process. His humility and his gift of observation come from his strength to accept his situation and continue to persist with life. He had no idea that while he slogged his way in the cold as a labourer and aspiring local politician in Detroit, an entire nation in another continent celebrated him as a hero. Neither did Rodriguez know about South Africa’s growing love for him, nor did South Africa know of Rogriguez’s simple and invisible life. Both lived in oblivion. And then, almost like a miracle, after forty years he visited South Africa and performed, thrilling and stunning his live audience and moving the country. In a day’s time he was back to where he belonged. Forty years of disconnect. Some couldn’t believe this was the real Rodriguez. I empathise with them, cause for the longest time I couldn’t believe it too. I could barely put together words to describe the magic before me. The story of Rodriguez is one of the most unique and unbelievable ones. But it is true.
How can this even be true? How can you lead two separate lives, almost like a superhero? How could he be so calm when he made his return?
I think I’m now going to dive into what I’m feeling personally, you can choose to forgive me for that, this film has touched me intimately. Forget the analysis. Everyone who has liked the film will have loved the lovely, side-on animations. The smart editing and merging of illustrations with film. The side-on steadicam shots of Sixto walking through the snow. The serif typography. The silhouttes of cities in the morning and night. The clean interviews. It is a well-crafted, questioning film, no doubt. But as a film-maker and writer what I want to inquire further to understand is how it can be so affecting.
The film is like a book opening up into sub-plots which exposes layer after layer what the main subject wants to embrace. When viewing something for the first time, one can forget to consciously understand the sub-text while being engrossed in the singularity of the piece of art. If I heard these songs in isolation, I would’ve loved their poetry but never known their importance and the impact they had. I would’ve never known their intriguing longevity and their unifying power across two continents. The fact that I’m sitting here in India with moist eyes while hearing Rodriguez softly say “Thanks, for your time and you can thank me for mine” is reflective of the universal power of music and the sensation that is storytelling. The story of a poor genius who commercially failed in his region but dramatically transformed another without being aware of his exploits. The disconnect between author and audience, performer and stage, sound and listener. And the miraculous return to a changed people who knew nothing about who he really was. A living myth which hundreds of years from now might become even more unbelievable. It is already so tough to relate to the isolated communication which existed before the advent of mobile phones and the internet. One also wonders, how many Sixtos got lost in dark alleys and bars across the world back then. While Dylan and Morrison created waves there were smaller sparks waiting to become flames. How many of them might not have even recorded a song? And how many continue to go unnoticed? I’m not speaking of badly written songs. I’m speaking of genuine geniuses like Rodriguez. A fortunate musician who is resurrected by love, cinema and time.
“I wonder how many times you’ve been had
And I wonder how many plans have gone bad”
But someone from South Africa could’ve called the record company in USA. Someone could’ve travelled from Durban to New York. How unfortunate were we to not witness Rodriguez for longer? Or was it a boon in disguise, to have one the great talents to live most of his life as a ghost? Einstein spoke of time being relative. Could this be an example?
The dissolving of the apartheid and Rodriguez’s reunion with his real fans have a strange symbolic connect. It’s almost as though time staged his return after the apartheid was over. No foreign acts were allowed to perform in South Africa back then and it’s an amazing coincidence that the mysterious comeback of Sixto was in 1997-98. What if the news of him being alive was learned before that?
After we screened the film, I went out for dinner, alone. I remember smoking a cigarette and humming the tunes of Rodriguez on a dusty road with cement sacks piled up at irregular distances. Trains ran past me as workers’ slippers grazed against the rough ground. The desolate scenery was similar to the one which Rodriguez walks through in the film. I remembered my days of playing the guitar and the proficiency I garnered in a short span of time, thanks to immense practise and energy. And then I stopped. I wondered what happened to that side of me? I think I started to understand why Rodriguez must’ve left music. And trust me this was the one question that still haunts me; why didn’t the man continue to compose music inspite of everything? Why does one cease to do something they love? Why do we let go of something we’ve earned and created? I filled myself with many cigarettes.
I was beginning to get concerned with Sixto’s solitude and loneliness. His family. The empty rooms he must’ve slept in after a day’s work. His rusting guitar strings and the snow outside his window. His wallet. His friends who knew nothing about his artistry. At first I was so ravished by the spectacle of his comeback, but now I was wondering about those mundane decades which passed between him and himself. And inspite of everything, the ensuing calm with which he held himself together. I was now awed by him, not only his music. Rodriguez in my regard is an auteur of the highest stature, independent of rules and proposed structures, he clarified himself in a way which he wanted to. For this alone, he is beautiful. At 23 I’m having issues with holding a guitar again, how a man can do that with a smile after 60 in front of a crowd is something I wonder. I wonder.
Searching For Sugar Man / 2012
Written and Directed by – Malik Bendjelloul
Producers – Malik Bendjelloul, Simon Chinn, Peter Schildt
Won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature