There’s a batch number of high-profile music documentaries out this year – Kevin Macdonald’s Marley and Joe Berliner’s Paul Simon films have already arrived, with the Rolling Stones, the Stone Roses and Fillmore East projects yet to come. But truffle a little deeper and you’ll find some less well-known but equally rich stories deserving attention.
Chief among these is Searching For Sugar Man, a fascinating unscrambling of a thirty year old mystery about Sixto Rodriguez, a Dylan-y singer-songwriter from Detroit who disappeared after his two albums tanked in the early Seventies, but unwittingly became an unlikely icon for white liberals during Apartheid in South Africa.
Malik Bendjelloul’s film loops through a number of strands – who was Rodriguez, why he became so big in South Africa, and what happened to royalties from the 500,000 copies he sold there of his debut album, Cold Fact. Each gives up fascinating moments – reports that he’s committed suicide on stage; a difficult interview with his former label boss (and one time Motown chairman) Clarence Avant regarding the whereabouts of the royalties; a revealing tour of the Archive of Censored Material in Johannesburg. But the pay-off is a present day interview with Rodriguez. Now aged 69 and looking like a Mexican Johnny Cash, he lives modestly in downtown Detroit, where he still works “hard labour, demolition, restoration… it keeps the blood circulating.”
Frustratingly, Bendjelloul’s film spends too long on Rodriguez’ South African success – the first hour is almost all interviews with enthusiastic SA musicians and industry professionals testifying to the artist’s brilliance – that could have been judiciously edited to have the length. You sense the sketchy but evocative accounts of Rodriguez in his absent years as “a wondering spirit round the city… not much more than a homeless person” merited much deeper investigation.
Searching For Sugar Man opens in the UK on July 27
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