The United States in the 70s gave birth to many incredible musicians. Those artists were creating new genres and sub-genres of music, crystallizing the definition of rock and roll, experimenting with new sounds and crafting their own legends. Among this whole bunch of musicians, now less or more known, existed one star which wasn’t able to shine brightly in the sky of fame. Sixto Rodriguez, Sugar Man – a ghost genius – forgotten by everybody, ought to be remembered by all.
‘Searching for Sugar Man’
The film called ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ (2012), directed by Malik Bendjelloul, can hardly be classified to a singular movie style. Based on the whole ‘mysterious atmosphere’ and hundreds of recorded interviews with people engaged in the search of Rodriguez, we can suspect the image was probably meant to be a documentary. We meet then Mike Theodore – well-known music producer; we meet Stephen Segerman who was one of the most helpful people when looking for Rodriguez; we get to know a passionate journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydrom.
The whole story, mainly seen through the eyes of Segerman, includes the images of Sugar Man’s life – the missing genius musician – Sixto Rodriguez. His story is truly remarkable. Rodriguez was an incredibly talented young man who recorded 2 albums. According to his producer Mike Theodor, Sixto was a genius similar to Bob Dylan and his unique artistic sensitivity and talent for literature would make him a world-class star. Unfortunately, life and music industry happens to be unexpected and cruel, and as much as hard it is to believe after listening to his albums, Rodriguez flew through the American music scene without any significant mark.
RPA’s biggest rock star
Funny enough, a totally different situation happened in a far-away land of RPA. Why there? The movie serves a light and easy to believe story about a girl who brought Rodriguez’s album to RPA when visiting the country. Then, together with her friends, she started to passionately listen to the musician’s art and illegally copy his CDs. That is how Rodriguez became there one of the most popular rock stars. ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ describes the activist power, flowing from the sounds of the beloved musician. According to the story, his art inspired youth in RPA to start a riot against Apartheid.
Rodriguez’s fame was so big that his name stood right next to the ‘big stars’ such as The Beatles and Simon & The Garfunkel. Hard to believe? You haven’t heard the best part. Sixto’s fans in RPA were absolutely convinced that their beloved rock and roll star, supposedly super famous in the U.S., committed a horrible suicide by setting himself on fire on the stage during one of his concerts. Imagine the shock experienced by Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydrom, when they discovered that in reality, Sixto is perfectly fine and lives in Detroit. That was definitely a moment which speeded up the movie’s flow and heated up the interest of the whole story.
A genius who says ‘no’ to fame
And then finally we see him! A mature, hard-working man with long black hair, dark skin and immortal shades on his eyes. Without any doubts, he’s the same hippie-artist we saw on Rodriguez’s first album cover. The moment when we see Rodriguez entering the scene, makes the whole movie shine with new colors. The film’s character got instantly dominated by the silent charisma of musician’s personality. He describes his story without much confidence, yet with a natural storytelling talent. After being ‘re-discovered as an artist’, Sixto played 30 concerts in RPA where, according to his daughter, he ‘became his true self’ – a world-class musician, destined to perform for millions.
Oddly, that career was not in Rodriguez’s plans. During all his life, except for the moments of brief fame, he worked hard in constructions, lived in an extremely modest way and conditions. From time to time he would play guitar and make songs – just because he loved it.
Rodriguez didn’t perceive fame and fortune as one of his life goals. He seemed to find peace and happiness with his extremely modest and fame-free life. ‘Well, this is just how the music industry is’ – commented shortly when asked about his lost music career. Sixto is a man of iron values and shining freedom, with a charisma of the biggest leaders, holding a talent and sensitivity of the greatest artist. Despite getting abandoned by the music world, he chose freedom and a disciplined life over the race for recognition and money.
Sadly enough, all his magical personality wasn’t showed well enough in the movie itself. What screamed the most in the story was an eternal question: ‘How is it possible that Rodriguez hasn’t succeeded as a musician in the U.S.…?’ Even though repeated (too) many times, the main problem didn’t reach any answer nor conclusion, which puts Bendjelloul’s film in line with other unfinished and not-well-thought-of movies.
The Folk Blues God
OK – it wasn’t perfectly thought-of, but only in the plot part. When it comes to the audiovisual side, ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ shines bright like a diamond. Beautifully crafted images of sunny RPA or cold grey Detroit mix with the characters’ interviews and legendary sounds of Rodriguez’s songs. Music is definitely the part which (along with Sixto himself) makes the movie an overall pleasant experience.
The soundtrack of ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ is made entirely of the main character’s songs. His main genre is a folk blues with elements of light jazz, painted with the sound of Spanish guitar. That instrument is definitely dominant in his genius songs. It gives them the proper rhythm and shape, at the same time perfectly composes with the artist’s voice.
There is no doubt about similarities with Bob Dylan, but Rodriguez is definitely somebody more than just a ‘Latino version of Dylan’. Rodriguez’s songs are real life stories, shaped in the form of music. The lyrics are poems-alike – just listen to ‘Cause’, ‘Sugar Man’ or ‘Can’t Get Away’ and get amazed by those simple but poetic masterpieces.
Let him get away
I won’t repeat the unanswered question of ‘how come Rodriguez hasn’t become a global music star’. Sixto, with his strong and silent charisma, would just laugh in my face. Maybe he wasn’t resilient or focused enough. Maybe he didn’t take the chances when he could and that’s why he hasn’t succeeded. So what? For him, the big career seemed not to have any value. Perhaps the movie’s creators totally forgot about this one simple reason.
As much as ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ leaves lots of questions open or not entirely covered, the film defends itself with beautiful music, high-quality images and smoothly run story. Thanks to the movie we could meet Rodriguez and get to know his artwork. Artwork of the Sugar Man – a person covered in mystery, who was kind enough to reveal a bit of his great talent. And that’s a concrete cold fact.