Searching For Sugarman: How To Find A Musical Enigma

Sixto Rodriguez is a name unfamiliar to most, but this documentary which recently won an Oscar tells his remarkable story in truly eloquent terms. If you've ever found yourself harking back to days of Dylan, The Beatles and The Who, then this movie is made for you.
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Sixto Rodriguez is a name unfamiliar to most, but this documentary which recently won an Oscar tells his remarkable story in truly eloquent terms. If you've ever found yourself harking back to days of Dylan, The Beatles and The Who, then this movie is made for you.

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‘Just climb up on my music.’ Don’t mind if I do Rodriguez, and what a trip it was. Before I was asked to review this film for you lovely people I hadn’t heard a thing about the artist Sixto Rodriguez, and I’m sure lots of you are in the same boat. The man passed by so many ears for so long, but no longer.

So, first off, I thought, ‘lets make use of this Spotify account I pay 9.99 a month for and do some searching for Sugarman myself’. What seems to be a single track appears, Crucify Your Mind, I found more on there at a later date, but o.k, stick it on, get out of bed and get ready. A nice melody plucks up and a sweet, simplistic guitar riff kicks in reminding me of a Doors track. Then came the voice and the words that that voice set forth. I’m sold instantly to the mans music and thought my dad would really get into this too, the most avid music man I know, and Sixto came from his era when he ‘switched on’, he later tells me.

As captivating musically as Van Morrison or The Doors and as lyrically and phonetically potent as a young Bob Dylan, a comparison made by his first album's producer, and the guy responsible for finding him in a dive bar, The Sewer no less, in Detroit in 1968, Mike Theodore. So what happened to this lost gem of a musician? Why him instead of all the other artists, never to be seen or heard again, in a time when artists dropped like flies if they didn’t make their labels any money?

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I swing an extra ticket for my dad which is brilliant (thank you Andy), he’s only around for a little bit before he has to go back to work in The North and it’s a perfect opportunity to spend a day together, make an evening of it. So we walk down to Soho from Waterloo, something I’m still not 100% confident with, I’m much more likely to jump on a tube, but my dad is a Londoner really, as much as that would pain my grandad to hear. He’s strolled these streets many times, occasionally with me too, so I put myself in his capable hands. He talks to me about all the things he has read about Sixto in The Observer and saves me the article so I can have a read too; full of useful ideas my dad. We walk past the Lyceum where  he tells me that it didn’t always have the Lion King on and used to be host to lots of bands when he first came to London close to 30 years ago, ‘everyone from Bob Marley to The Clash have played here.’ ‘Not Sixto Rodriguez though, I suppose.’ Later I was to find out that he had indeed come to London, if not The Lyceum. So we get to the screening room after a miss calculation en route, it just wouldn’t be a day out with the father without one wrong turn; ending up at a quarry in Gozo, sheer drop either side, face-to-face with a massive truck comes to mind. Sorry for that one Dad..

This is where the film comes in, and what a great story it is! The man himself describes the film as ‘just a typical rags-to-riches story’ (The Observer, thanks Dad) and when you step back from it at the end, that is exactly what it is. The best documentaries are simply great stories that need to be told and shared with the wider world. J G. Ballard writes, in an introduction to a re-release of his book ‘Crash’, ‘We live inside an enormous novel. It is now less and less necessary for the writer to invent the fictional content of his novel. The fiction is already there. The writer's task is to invent the reality.’ This is exactly what actor/filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul does with, quite astonishingly, his first crack at a film. He directed, edited and wrote this documentary, and a beautiful film it is too.

The film plays to the mysterious nature of the Rodriguez story. The way it evolves allows the audience to be swept away in the pariah that is Rodriguez and his music, a microcosm parallel to what the huge fan base in South Africa were swept up in for 25 years. Although the music passed by most of the people in his own country and most other nations all around the world, South Africa adopted him as there own. ‘You're bigger than Elvis over here’ is what Rodriguez is told, stunned into an unbelieving silence. He even became a symbol to the anti-apartheid movement that slowly but surely gathered on home soil, as it exploded all around the globe, completely unbeknown to him though. This is how the story cleverly strikes a chord with anyone who watches it. Everyone is aware of what happened in South Africa in the 70s, the sanctions imposed, the mass protests in cities all over the world and the eventual collapse of a heinous regime. The film gives another dimension to this point in history by taking you inside the country to see what was happening there.

‘Follow the money and you’ll find your story’ is a line from a South African music journalist, one of the men involved in the search for Rodriguez. This curtail to the story is interesting because it delves into the music industry at a time when artists were short-changed, expendable and worked to the bone. Although this was going on, the late 60s and early 70s were arguably music's golden years, my Dad would be adamant, although he’s not a music nazi, it would be impossible to list them all, but: Jefferson Airplane, Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Beatlemania, The Stones, The Who... A veritable michelin star 6 course meal when compared to the dog’s dinner we have on offer today, with few exceptions, it must be said. Enter Clarence Avant, the ‘father’ of Motown and the man whose label, Sussex, was responsible for releasing Rodriguez albums. An enigmatic character who makes a cameo (my guess being he didn’t like the line of inquiry and finished abruptly) somewhere in the middle. A shady music industry mystery just adds to the feast that is the film.

The film just wouldn’t have been the same if it had popped up on BBC4, which it inevitably will at some point in the future. I really recommend the big screen experience for this one.

So the story is set in two different eras as well as two different continents. However, the seamless way Benjelloul slips between them is masterful; really cleverly composed.  At points I actually felt waves of what can only be described as empathetic excitement shudder up my spine triggered by some heartfelt moments in the film. If that kind of physical reaction isn’t a resounding endorsement I don’t know what else you could want from a cinema going experience! I saw Batman at the weekend and it was terrible in comparison, I fell asleep at points. No falling asleep here though, I was captivated from start to finish by a compelling story. It makes me think, why people don’t really watch documentaries on the big screen? Apart from the obvious: Distribution. The film just wouldn’t have been the same if it had popped up on BBC4, which it inevitably will at some point in the future. I really recommend the big screen experience for this one.

So, Rodriguez. I got there eventually, just like the film does too after the enigma has been solved (some beautiful animations helps with this intrigue too). He is quite the human being, it must be said. Humble, generous, compassionate and articulate. He has re-affirmed my faith in humanity after watching the film and by interviewing to the people that know him from Detroit is how the film lets you in on this, he not being one to blow his own trumpet. Unknown to his own countrymen, musically, they tell you of Rodriguez the man, the worker, the father and the friend who had to go back to construction and the Chrysler factory after his fledgling musical career faltered. Rodriguez’ co-worker chooses his words so exquisitely and professes to you about the man he has known; a true star without ever being in the spotlight. All the people interviewed add exceptional insight at exactly the right times.

The entire film is encased with a soundtrack from the Rodriguez catalogue which just tops this film off. A brilliant piece of storytelling that plods along at exactly the right pace and puts a massive smile on your face at the same time. If I had to pick one hole in it, and I don’t really want to, it is that, apart from Rodriguez’ daughters, there is a distinct lack of female involvement, especially on the South African side of the story. All the fans interviewed seemed to be men when there was equally as much love for his music from women, you can see this in the concert footage. However, that is all I can poke at. A great film that I would be happy to spend money to go and see, unlike Batman; that’s 11 quid I won’t ever see again!

My dad really enjoyed the film too and it can be argued that it is more for his generation, those who ‘switched on’ in the late 60‘s and early 70‘s, but I’d disagree. It’s a film for music lovers, people who wished they grew up then and just about everyone else too. Make an evening of it. Hopefully the bridge you cross on the way home will be shut to all the cars so you can amble on the road talking about the film; me and my dad got lucky. So, get some Sixto in your life, let this film crucify your mind, you won’t regret it.

Searching For Sugarman is released nationwide on 26th July.