Searching for Sugar Man

Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

5/5 (1)

For some reason I’ve always been a fan of that the-good-die-young movie “Eddie and the Cruisers.” It’s the story of a rock star who fakes his own death to get away from the music scene.

Now I come across “Searching for Sugar Man,” a real-life documentary about a couple of fans searching for an underground music icon known as Rodriguez, rumored to have committed suicide on stage. Blew himself up. Set himself on fire. Shot himself in the head. Something like that.

The Back Story: In the late ’60s a couple of sharp music promoters discover a singer-songwriter playing in a seedy Detroit bar. Thinking he could be the next Big Sound (“a Chicano Bob Dylan”), they sign him up and produce an album titled “Cold Fact.” But the platter tanks and Rodriguez disappears into obscurity … until a bootleg tape surfaces in South Africa and he become a huge phenom there. But, word is, he’d dead.

However, fans never take a star’s death as The End. After all, we know Elvis is still alive. And Tupac didn’t really die from gunshot wounds. Just like Eddie and the Cruisers.

So the two fans (Capetown record-store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom) set out trying to find details bout the missing musician. After all, Segerman got his nickname from a song on the first track of Rodriguez’s debut album.

A website showing Rodriguez on the side of a milk carton, phone calls to the record producers, analyzing the lyrics of his songs for hints of where he might have lived – lots of detective work went into the effort.

And one day they got an email from Rodriguez’s eldest daughter. She’d seen the website. Turns out, her dad was alive and working construction in Detroit. Still in the ramshackle little house he’d lived in for the past 40 years.

“Searching for Sugar Man” is a fascinating journey – a little-known footnote to musical history. The documentary is currently playing at the Tropic Cinema. I highly recommend it.

With a deft mixture of interviews, animation, archival footage, and narrative storytelling, we learn how Sixto Rodriguez became more popular in South Africa than the Rolling Stones or Elvis Presley. But he never knew of that success. Nor did he see a penny of royalties.

First-time director Malik Bendjelloul had to convince Rodriguez to reveal himself. Finally the modest musician agreed, saying, “It’s never too early, never too late.”

So not-dead-at-all Rodriguez flew to South Africa to give a series of concerts to thousands of cheering fans who knew his songs word for word.

After the film’s Sundance debut, it has garnered a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 98%. And a new Rodriguez album has been released to great acclaim, 14 original tracks remastered.

“This was the greatest, the most amazing, true story I’d ever heard, an almost archetypal fairy tale,” says Malik Bendjelloul. “It’s a perfect story. It has the human element, the music aspect, a resurrection and a detective story.”

I once thought about looking for Elvis, but that was before I spoke with a funeral home director in Memphis. “Hell yes, Elvis is dead,” the old man told me. “I oughta know. I embalmed him myself.”

Hmm. Now about Tupac …

Email Shirrel: srhoades@aol.com

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