Film Review: Searching for (Finding) Sugar Man

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“Sugar Man” is an inspiring true tale


‘Sugar Man’ is as much a fairy tale as it is a documentary

BY: Melinda Miller

“Searching for Sugar Man” is so satisfying on every level that, once you see it, you’ll want to see it again. It’s a documentary that plays like a fairy tale – a story that even those who have lived it continue to find barely believable.

It begins once upon a time in 1970 and 1971, when a talented young singer-songwriter in Detroit cut a couple of albums that went nowhere. The music people who signed him thought they had the next Dylan; they had worked with other huge stars and included this young man – who went by the single name Rodriguez – as among their best.

No one bought his records.

Spin the globe a half-turn, though, to the South Africa of the 1970s, where one of those albums somehow landed. It was a time of apartheid and censorship, when restrictions of one sort or another applied to everyone, black and white alike. Into this mix came an album of beautiful songs, protest songs, songs about oppression and sex and rising up and speaking out. Through bootleg copies and other distributors, Rodriguez’s records became the biggest thing in the country – as people we meet in the film say, he was bigger than Elvis. His albums became as enduring as “Abbey Road” and “Born to Run” – and no one in America, not his family, not his friends or his original producers – knew anything about it.

And no one in South Africa knew anything about Rodriguez. All they had were the photos on the albums, showing a handsome Hispanic man with long black hair and, sometimes, a brilliant smile.

“We didn’t know who this guy was,” says Stephen “Sugar” Segerman. “Then we found out he committed suicide. He set himself alight on stage. … It was one of the most grotesque suicides in rock ’n’ roll history.”

Or he shot himself in the head on stage.

Or he died of a drug overdose. Nobody knew.

This movie, which opened the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Utah, won the audience award for world cinema documentary and a special jury prize for its celebration of the artistic spirit – and that sums up the film.

It celebrates Rodriguez, whose art found an audience of millions on its own; it celebrates the South Africans who defied oppression and censors to embrace the music; and it celebrates the spirit of filmmaking as embodied by the young director and screenwriter Malik Bendjelloul of Sweden, who spent years tracking down people who had known Rodriguez to tell his story.

Bendjelloul freely admits that the movie was, for him, a path to poverty, with some parts shot with his cellphone. He also drew the illustrations himself. But, as Sundance showed, this is a movie about happy endings.

Bendjelloul has a terrific sense of what and who to include in his movie, starting with the two South Africans who, in 1997, decided to try to find out what had really happened to Rodriguez. It is their story that first captured the director’s interest, and he follows it to the snowy streets of Detroit, where he strikes gold with people like Rick Emmerson, a laborer who worked construction jobs with Rodriguez after the musician was dropped by his record label. Emmerson’s ability to express what others saw in Rodriguez is a gift in itself: “He had this magical quality that all poets had,” Emmerson says. “Even though his musical hopes were dashed, the spirit remained.” And, he added, Rodriguez never acted like having to do hard, dirty work was a punishment, or beneath him: “He appreciated it like it was a sacrament.”

Meanwhile, along the film journey, we hear the soundtrack that swept South Africa.

South African writer Rian Malan is also eloquent in describing the outcome of the search for the man who wrote “Sugar Man”: “Because I’m a journalist, I know that sort of thing does not happen in the rational universe,” he says, and trying to revive his legacy isn’t even a good stunt, because, “It so obviously cannot be true. Who’d believe it?”

Then he adds: “But I was wrong.”

The end of the search, which we won’t discuss here for those who have not yet seen the movie or a “60 Minutes” segment about it, is only the beginning of another story that, as Malan later says, “remains too strange to be true. These are the days of miracles and wonder.”

“Searching for Sugar Man” is the kind of story everyone would like to have made about their own life, a story about how your actions can affect people, people you have never even met, in a positive way, even if you never, ever know about it. And, even if, someday, you do.


3 and 1/2 stars

Starring: Dennis Coffey, Stephen Segerman and the family of Sixto Rodriguez

Director: Malik Bendjelloul

Running time: 85 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for brief language but overall not offensive.

The Lowdown: Two South Africans track down the story of a forgotten American songwriter whose music made him a superstar in their country.



Also see****************

Film review: Searching for Sugar Man

By Hugh Lilly | Published on October 13, 2012 | Issue 3779


The decay of modern-day Detroit looms large in Bendjelloul’s film, says Hugh Lilly.

Searching for Sugar Man

Folk-rock loves an enigma. Moreover, it loves – and mythologises – those who die too young. Nick Drake overdosed on pills at 26; Elliott Smith died at 34, probably by his own hand. Both singer-songwriters have posthumously achieved immense recognition. A new documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, examines the curious life and work of , a musician who should rank alongside Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie as one of the most revered of folksinger-lyricists. In 2006, the Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, who has a background in television-documentary production, went in search of a subject for his feature-film debut. When he met a man named Stephen Segerman in Cape Town, Bendjelloul knew he’d found the story he’d been looking for.

Sugarman interview
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Segerman’s nickname, “Sugar”, derives from his friend’s mispronunciation of his last name as “Sugar Man”, which is the title of a song by the enigmatic, reclusive Rodriguez. Segerman, a record-store owner, had been researching the singer for years. To most of the world, including folk-music fans in the US, he was virtually unknown. In South Africa, however, Rodriguez was bigger than the Stones. Rodriguez, who recorded under only his surname and credited lyrics in his brother’s name, Jesús, was born in Detroit to working-class parents who had emigrated from Mexico in the 1920s. His music, politically conscious folk-rock with a Motown soulfunk edge, is contained on two records, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, issued in the early 1970s on Sussex, the label that would later release Bill Withers’s early albums.

Rodriguez’s Dylanesque voice is probably best described as a less-kindly Cat Stevens meets James Taylor, with just a dash of Loaded-era Lou Reed. His lyrics are at once catchy and deeply felt; even the ones that are only about romantic troubles rail against injustice and mourn defeat. Little wonder, then, that he became so popular in apartheid-era South Africa. Although critically admired, the albums failed to chart in the US. They slowly emerged in South Africa through bootlegging, but their sparse liner notes elided biography: Rodriguez was an enigma. By 1975, rumours were circulating. Rodriguez had apparently committed suicide, gruesomely, on stage, after singing “Forget It”, which concludes with the lines “thanks for your time/then you can thank me for mine/and after that’s said/forget it.”

The decay of modern-day Detroit looms large in Bendjelloul’s film; the associated tale he weaves, even in its happiest moments, is undeniably heartbreaking. Bendjelloul follows the money-go-round to bigwig producer Clarence Avant, who headed Sussex. The director-interviewer’s reluctance to needle Avant with questions, as well as his skimming of the apartheid issue, are the film’s two faults. “It’s better to burn out/ than to fade away.” Rodriguez paradoxically embodies both halves of Neil Young’s famous lyric in a way that only the documentary can adequately explain. (Do not Google Rodriguez or the film; knowing “how it ends” would be worse than having known that the protagonist of The Crying Game was a man.) One big question goes unanswered: why did it take them so long to make a movie about this guy?

Rating: 4/5

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN, directed by Malik Bendjelloul

Films are rated out of 5: 1 = abysmal; 5 = amazing


Also see


for my great buddies and “musicos”, Peter “Allie”,  Errol, Guy and Rod, remembering the good old days back in Cape Town and thinking of you”guys” here in the “new bewilderness”

“ou toppie and totally unmusico” kraik

“And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
– TS Eliot in ‘Four Quarters’

from ‘Here, There and Everywhere’ [Kindle Edition]


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7 Responses to “Film Review: Searching for (Finding) Sugar Man”

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