Last Friday at the entrance of Moma’s auditorium the line was huge. Behind me there was an old man waiting in hope to get a ticket to watch “Searching for Sugar Man” for the third time. “The movie really cheers me up. Both the previous times I have exited the movie theater with such a positive mindset that I want to see it again. It makes me feel good and optimistic”, he said, “To me it’s the best movie of 2012”.
Maybe three times could sound a little excessive, but I would definitely suggest watching this movie at least once. This British-Swedish production already premiered last summer in Sweden, the UK, Ireland and the US. Next month it’s going to be distributed in Norway, France, Germany, Argentina and the Netherlands. It looks like no Italian distributor has bought the rights on this movie yet, but I still hope it’s not going to be dismissed. And here’s why.
With a unique narrative talent, mixed with a hint of animation and a couple of coup de théâtre, filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul trances out the incredible yet true story of a Detroit based singer-songwriter who held all the aces to become as famous as Bob Dylan, but who became Mr. Nobody in America. But unlike most of the Mr. Nobody of the history of music, Sixto Rodriguez was – unbeknownst to him – huge in South Africa, where he sold between 5 hundred thousand and a million of copies. As famous as The Beatles and Elvis Presley, his songs became the musical score of anti-apartheid movement.
The story starts in Cape Town, driving on the breathtaking South African shore on the notes of “Sugar Man”, a melancholic psychedelic rock song from Rodriguez’ second album “Cold Fact”. Behind the wheel there is Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, a great fan of Rodriguez who runs an indie record store. Like all the other people who listened to Rodriguez’ music, Segerman knew pretty much nothing about this mysterious yet famous singer-songwriter.
Right from the first scenes the documentary dexterously mingles with a detective storytelling. According to rumors, the album “Cold Fact” first landed in South Africa with a young lady who brought the vinyl to her sweetheart, coming back from a trip in the US. Bootleg copies of the album then passed from hand to hand until three different labels ended up selling Rodriguez music, paying the royalties to Sussex Record, the American label who signed Rodriguez. The money never made it to Rodriguez’s pockets. By the time he became a superstar in South Africa, he had already hung up is guitar to become a construction worker. The movie doesn’t really manage to solve the mystery around where all that money went. After all Rodriguez doesn’t show any resentment towards the music industry, instead he looks very satisfied with the tranquility of is frugal life, complimented by his passion for music.
On the other end, with its gripping rhythm, the movie does solve the enigma around Mr. Rodriguez identity. Until recently his South African fans didn’t even know his full name, nor could they recognize his face. Confusing the few clues on the musician’s name, on the label of the vinyl “Cold fact”, Sixto Rodriguez is credited along with Jesus Rodriguez.
What was his name then? Sixto or Jesus? The only picture of him circulating at the time was the one on the cover of the same album, where Rodriguez is seating – one would not even guess if he was tall or short – wearing a hat and sunglasses. At some point it came out that he was dead. The shy singer-songwriter, who used to play with his back facing the audience, eventually shot himself on stage. Rumors, again.
To find out how exactly Rodriguez “died” a journalist, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, put online a milk-carton style plea “Have you seen this man?”, asking information about Rodriguez’s story to whoever could provide details. One of Rodriguez’s daughters, Eva, found the post and replied that her father was actually alive, and that he lived in Detroit. That’s how Rodriguez got to know that he was, in fact, a celebrity in South Africa.
In 1998 he toured the country like a rock star, with a series of sold out concerts in front of two generations of fans. At the age of 56 he nonchalantly played for the first time in front of a massive crowd, as if he had done nothing else for the rest of his life and then, nonchalantly again, he returned to his simple Detroit life. And that’s the most beautiful facet of this character: the imperturbable interior peace and the serenity of his life, with or without fame, with or without a lot of money.