Sugar KurtzI was all totally jazzed about Searching for Sugar Man. The movie sits right in my wheel house. Some Afrikaner music nerds get all every-man-detective and go looking for answers regarding a mysterious American singer/songwriter by the name of Sixto Rodriguez–who went by the fairly uncreative nom de plum Rodriguez. I remained totally jazzed over the two days I watched it. However, in the day (and change) that has elapsed since I finished it, I’m left feeling pretty empty.

As a concept for a documentary, Sugar Man is pretty great. Back in the 70s, through some bizarre confluence of events, a completely unknown American singer/songwriter becomes, in the words of a few of the film’s interviewees, “bigger than Elvis” in South Africa. With a flinty delivery–think a much more marketable version of Dylan’s rasp, and a penchant for psychedelic pop to back his coffee-house-troubadour politicking, Rodriguez took the heavily censored Apartheid-era South Africa by storm. Lyrics like “I wonder how many times have you had sex,” which, even by 1970 standards, seem pretty trite; raised eyebrows and had censors literally scratching records so they couldn’t be played on South African radio.
This all occurred in a pre-Internet world. No message boards or fan pages sprung up. Rodriguez’s career quietly petered out stateside, after only two albums, without so much as a whisper of his growing legend in Africa. With Rodriguez in musical retirement–demolishing and restoring houses and running (and eventually loosing elections for) a few different Detroit offices, wild rumors about his death (self-immolation being a favorite) circulated throughout the southern tip of Africa.
Because Rodriguez’s career died with a whimper after selling, like, no records; there was no press, no interviews, only a smattering of reviews, and only the pictures from the album covers. Lots of white space for devoted fans to fill in.
It’s at this point, we begin to see the parallels to the trips down the river by Marlowe and Willard (in Heart of Darkness and  Apocalypse Now! respectively). A reclusive, secretive, maybe even dead man in some far off land; potentially corrupted; potentially killed, violently; poetic and a bit inflammatory; ultimately, lots of white space to be filled in as the river is traversed. And in this mold, Searching for Sugar Man is immensely successful, until we finally meet Rodriguez.
Much like Kurtz through the eyes of Marlowe/Willard at the end of a river in The Congo/Vietnam, there is a magical, mystical otherness about Rodriguez. All of this, again like Kurtz with Marlowe/Willard, is created by the rabid interpretations of vague yet interesting language from a far-off source. However, this is not only the story of the mystery and search but of the eventual discovery and aftermath. Sugar Man is also about what happened when he was found and, sort of about who and where he is now.
We finally see Rodriguez as he opens a window. Mostly obscured from the light by the frame, a high contrast image. It’s beautiful and it’s quite fitting thematically–letting air in, discovery, opening, ect… In fact, Rodriguez is almost exclusively filmed in high contrast light with lots of shadow, a style the film only adopts for him. When he’s not cloaked in shadow, he’s walking through Detroit, camera tracking, dutifully, at his side, as one of his songs plays; often for full minutes.
Rodriguez is a pretty quiet dude. While he has the capacity for poetry–it’s there in his songs, he doesn’t really have much to say. He has done plenty, and should be, by all rights, interesting. This could be a fault of the filmmakers asking poor questions, Rodriguez’s own daughters (who convey the story of his non-musical life) being sub-par personalities, or poor structuring and editing. Regardless of the overall culprit, when we finally find Rodriguez in Detroit, and hear, after the fact, about his sold out string of shows in South Africa in the late 90s, it’s pretty anti-climactic. He doesn’t seem particularly interested in what could have been or even in the Christ-like four-concert resurrection. He’s a pretty contented dude. Unlike the feverish tone of social upheaval, censorship, and mystery that dominates the opening half of the film, the “salad-days” reflection of a comfortable man and his spartan lifestyle doesn’t fit.
It’s a tonal problem that the film barely attempts to address. Some tossed off lines about how cool he is for not embracing his status in South Africa pepper the closing minutes of the film. Rodriguez’s own soft-spoken ways are probably too much for the film to overcome. And could be part of the reason for the intense legend built up over the first 45 minutes.
Check out the opening track, “Sugar Man,” from his debut album, Cold Fact:
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