Searching For Sugarman (2012) Directed by Malik Bendjelloul
Last week Nelson Mandela finally passed away. I remember apartheid well, seeing as I grew up under Margaret Thatcher in power. I remember Thatcher calling Mandela a terrorist – as he was being freed from prison. Of course Thatcher thought it was fine dealing with white supremacists. Certainly history is already revising which of the two actually was the terrorist. A few days ago I posted a picture on my Facebook page of current Conservative leader David Cameron posing with US pop sensation Haim. You only have to trace the lineage to realize this was a bad idea from Haim's publicist. My growing cynicism towards Haim only increased 10 fold. We watched Searching For Sugarman a few weeks ago and again, Mandela's passing brought back feelings about the film.
I actually felt as high class documentary filmmaking goes, Searching For Sugarman was incredibly poorly made. The present day interviews looked like it was shot in 1973 (was this intentional?) There was a shoddiness and lack of edge to many parts of the film. What makes it a great documentary is of course, the story and the enigmatic presence of Rodriguez himself. Where Searching For Sugarman works so well is that it plays with the mystery and myth of Rodriguez and actually wants you to find out more about him, or at least sends you back to the often great music.
What slightly grates with Searching for Sugarman is that it treats Rodriguez's often harsh life like a saccharine fairytale. There's a distinct unsettling contrast. I'm sure the film-makers intend this.
The South Africa of the 1970's of course was a white ruling, middle class paradise. There is an irony of course with how Rodriguez has fared as an immigrant in the USA and how his name has become legend in the apartheid divided South African of the 1970's. Searching for Sugarman mostly side steps the politics apart from revealing his opening of many white afrikaner eyes to the evil inflicting their nation. That is a real achievement. It's a class thing. I wonder if Nelson, back in the 1970's, stewing in prison heard the dulcet tones of Rodriguez waft in on an African breeze?
It's very rare these days that you see a public person and watch them talk, play music, do their art or whatever – and then leave still mystified by that person. We have demystified everything. The media is all about over-sharing. I don't have a TV because it certainly kills the mystery. But Sixto Rodriguez remains an enormously dignified and mysterious person all the way through Searching For Sugarman.
He's a rockstar when he passes a house in a near-destroyed Detroit city street; he's like a member of the Rolling Stones but his stage is a construction site. He's everything that record companies try to fabricate even to this day. Yet, his story (or what ever snippets we are allowed to hear during the documentary) is tragic in many ways – and still, he seems at peace wherever he is: Totally calm in front of 100 000 people in South Africa in the late 1990s. Totally happy in his tiny no-amenities-one-room-home.
Although Searching For Sugarman was a rather average documentary, the events it told of and the character that emerged (embellished by amazing music) stay with me for good. I feel a little bit changed. It's as if Sixto Rodriguez has confirmed my thoughts on music, stardom, creativity and dignity. The next day after seeing this documentary, I was calm about playing a show in front of a small audience. I knew the performance mattered to them like it mattered to me. We connected, and that was more than enough. The way Rodriguez' music could be at the same time completely ignored (The USA) and totally ingrained into another time and space (South Africa) shows just how uncontrollable and mysterious the paths of music are. Or the paths of people. Call it luck or faith. I prefer to admire the mystery.
Importantly, the story of Rodriguez is also a tale about racism. There's no doubt in my mind that a part of why he didn't get much attention in the US was because he looks like a native American. His music's status in South Africa as a kind of prophet to the white movement against apartheid bears a baffling connection to horrible racism too. Someone must be writing a PhD already on this aspect of Sixto Rodriguez, I would imagine. See this on your Holiday break and be elevated.