Sunday, 18 August 2013

Searching for Sugar Man

A well-deserved Oscar for this fantastic documentary about a true artist
Yesterday afternoon I finally managed to catch the Academy Award-winning documentary feature Searching for Sugar Man. Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul heard about a musician known as Sixto Rodriguez who made two albums in the early 1970s but they never took off and then he disappeared.

There were rumours of how he died. One was that while he was performing on stage, he doused himself with petrol and lit himself on fire. The other was that people were booing him as he sang and then he put down his guitar, got out a handgun and pointed it to his head and pulled the trigger.

However, another interesting aspect of the story is that a copy of his album somehow made it to South Africa. In the documentary someone says perhaps it was an American girlfriend visiting her South African boyfriend and they played the record and it soon spread like wildfire, people making cassette copies of it and passing them around.

Rodriguez recording with his guitar in the early 1970s
This happened at the height of apartheid, where the media was completely censored, society was ultra conservative and no one had televisions "because they were considered Communist", said one Afrikaner. The country had many sanctions imposed on it, because of apartheid.

But listening to Rodriguez's music set them free. The lyrics talked about being anti-establishment, about freely expressing oneself and letting go of conventions. Listening to his music inspired a new generation of Afrikans to stand up to the government and protest against apartheid, and this started through music, thanks to Rodriguez.

And so over 20 years after, some South African Rodriguez fans and music journalists wanted to track him down and find out what happened to him. They even analyzed his lyrics to get any kind of clue they could since the liner notes on the album gave no more information about him.

Through the internet, they put out a message asking of anyone knew if Rodriguez was alive or dead and one of his daughters excitedly replied back saying not only that he was her dad, but that he was alive and well in Detroit, where he had been all along.

The documentary perfectly recreates the story thanks to some great storytellers. Bendjelloul also does a bit of searching himself, tracking down the owner of Rodriguez's record label who went bankrupt. While he missed the talented musician, he couldn't understand what all the fuss was about.

When we finally get to meet Rodriguez, he seems hesitant to be on camera and in the end doesn't have much to say. However, his actions speak louder than words when you watch the archival footage of him performing in South Africa in 1998 for a series of sold-out concerts. He is gracious and kind, soaking in all the attention and yet not letting it go to his head.

His daughters also give some insight into their father. He is Mexican American, and their mother is part European, part Native American. Interestingly the film does not say more about what happened to their mother. They grew up living a tough life, living in places with roofs over their heads, but not necessarily with electricity or running water.

Rodriguez today taking his fame in stride
Their father worked odd jobs, mostly in construction and demolition. One daughter recalls watching him carry a refrigerator on his back. He says he learned the guitar when he was in his teens and started performing at 16. He tried to get gigs wherever he could and in the old photographs one could see a confident Rodriguez with his shades, looking very stylish. As one fellow construction worker jokes, Rodriguez would show up for work in a tuxedo.

The children say their father has a degree in philosophy and took them to the library and art galleries to open their eyes beyond Detroit. He was not embarrassed or afraid to take his children to places that seemed elitist and this helped them understand their father as an artist too.

Despite being rediscovered and performing in South Africa a few times, Rodriguez still lives a spartan life in a home he has lived in for 40 years. Now in his early 70s, he doesn't do the hard work anymore, though one of his daughters forced him to get a mobile phone so she could contact him instead of having to drive through the neighbourhood to find him.

Rodriguez's music is woven throughout the film, at times as background music, others placed in the forefront complete with some animation that gives the film an artistic touch.

We enjoyed the film immensely because of the fascinating story as well as how it was told. Rodriguez himself is an enlightening character -- someone who rises above the mundane and unwaveringly continues to live by his values, something we should all learn from.

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