Since I saw the trailer for Searching for Sugar Man I’ve wanted to see the film. I finally got a chance to see it in a little independent theater in the city. It’s the usual independent theater: small screen, odd location, and gourmet snacks to purchase to eat. I knew what to expect, but I also didn’t know what to expect.
Searching for Sugar Man follows two white South African men who are searching for the Mexican-American (Chicano and Xicano were not identifiers used) singer/writer/performer Rodriguez. Both men in search of Rodriguez are huge fans. Many in the US did not know of his music, but he was “bigger than Elvis Presley” in South Africa in the 1970s. The documentary captures their efforts to find out what happened to Rodriguez, how did he die, were the rumors true he shot himself in the head or lit himself on fire in front of fans? Who is receiving the royalties checks for the albums and cd’s being sold by the millions in South Africa?
Rodriguez was born to Mexican immigrant parents who moved to Detroit, Michigan as day laborers. Rodriguez too became a day laborer working in construction mostly. Then he recorded two albums in the US under the label Sussex, which were not well received by US audiences. However, that was not the case in South Africa where he was extremely popular.
His music is believed to have been introduced to some white South African youth when a young woman came from the US to visit her South African partner and brought the album with her. His music resonated with white South African youth who were troubled with how to become active and oppose apartheid. Rodriguez’s lyrics and guitar playing were one route many youth would embrace: music as a form of social change and consciousness.
The first part of the film follows the investigative approaches of the filmmakers and the historical legacy Rodriguez’s music had on white South African youth. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to share that Rodriguez is not dead, but alive and still living in Detroit. The second half of the film, mostly from 1998, follows what happens after the two filmmakers find and meet Rodriguez and his family.
I very much appreciated the nostalgia and how the filmmakers were able to capture that essence in their film when speaking with and showing how folks connect to Rodriguez’s music. I hope that if there ever is a film that highlights musicians such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Celia Cruz and Selena, that they too can capture that connection folks have with their music.
The film leaves many questions unanswered: Are there lawsuits pending for the “lost” royalties Rodriguez did not receive? What does Rodriguez desire? Does he want to continue to create music, tour? Why were there only white South Africans who were interested in his music? Where were the Black South Africans (and those considered “coloured” at the time)? What does Rodriguez think about how his fans have come from a particular space? What does this say about US music where musicians that have “borrowed” (more like appropriated) music from people of Color have thrived (i.e. Elvis)?
Rodriguez is on tour in the US. If you are in NYC you missed his performance on Friday which was sold out! You can still check him out all over the US and in some parts of Canada. Visit Rodriguez’s official website for more information. Also, look into purchasing the soundtrack which is exclusively of Rodriguez’s music. The theater I was at was selling the soundtrack and Rodriguez does receive royalties from the purchase of the soundtrack. Below are some tracks of his music.
“Sugar Man” performed live
VL Verdict: 9 out of 10