by Niles Schwartz
Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man is filled with aerial views of sleeping cities and long shots of desolate streets with the winter steam rising. What people we see on those streets are obscured by space, anonymous, and dwarfed by the metal and brick overhead and grizzled concrete below. On top of the images, bordering on abstraction as the camera tracks laterally, is a forceful and pained guitar strumming and voice. “Sugar man,” he sings, “won’t you hurry, ’cause I’m tired of these scenes…won’t you bring back all those colors to my dreams?” The lyric is addressed to a drug dealer, whose bag of narcotics carries the means to escape from a dreary existence of impoverishment and busted hope. “You’re the answer,” he sings to the sugar man, “that makes my questions disappear.” The song is the soundtrack to reality.
The voice and words belong to Rodriguez, aka Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, aka Jesus Rodriguez. But you’ve never heard of him. These songs evaporated like that sky-lured smoke from factories and car engines, the product of industry really amounting to nothing but more industry. Rodriguez was a topical pop-folk voice from the late 1960s who recorded two albums for a major label, then was dropped when the records didn’t sell. Like a lot of other would-be musicians and big dreamers, his visage and voiced drifted away. But in Apartheid South Africa, Rodriguez’ albums were hugely influential, spreading virally to a population looking for triggers for rebellion. Here, Rodriguez’s celebrity was intertwined with his music and their resonance; the man was myth, a prophet who set himself on fire on stage. Or shot himself on stage. Or died in prison.
Searching for Sugar Man is a detective story, even beginning with intimations of Arthur Conan Doyle as a music producer describes first meeting the mysterious Rodriguez, the moment described like a descent into the city’s catacombs with a “London fog,” a wall of smoke, blocking sight. Then he sees the singer strumming in front of the wall, his face in shadow. “You couldn’t see his face,” he remembers, “you had to listen to the words.” There’s communication, truth, and clarity, but personality – as we are all too aware – corrupts it, casting murk. The Afrikaners who grew up with Rodriguez’s two albums – Cold Fact and Coming From Reality – eventually went looking for their idol, wanting to know his fate and to put a clear face to this general representative of the working poor and oppressed. In spite of the consistency of a political theme, the liner notes credits Rodriguez as three separate song-writers (Sixto, Jesus, or just Rodriguez). There is no single identity.
The biggest surprise for his fans is that Rodriguez is still alive. And what more, he’s completely oblivious to his fame in South Africa. Because of sanctions, the nation was essentially sealed off and hermetical during the conservative Apartheid years. Very little got in, and little got out. And what did get in was closely examined and censored by the government, in turn only provoking more dissident interest. Rodriguez thus became bigger than Rodriguez: he was “Rodriguez.” Which, of course, only gave the “real” Rodriguez more mystique. And here he is, still drifting through these broken and eroded city streets. He still plays guitar, but isn’t much of a performer anymore. He’s committed to working and taking pride in it, even wearing a snazzy suit before doing some heavy lifting. Manual labor, demolition, and home renovating dominate his days, as he meanwhile occasionally runs for city council. He always loses, and his name is misspelled on the ballot.
I knew nothing about Rodriguez or the trajectory of Sugar Man’s story before watching it, but the execution is so assured, moved along by Rodriguez’ own songs, that I don’t think being wise to the facts is terribly important. Like a good song, the picture hits the right chords through its two movements, exploring the mythic persona of Rodriguez and then showing us the man’s face, climaxing with his on-stage appearance to thousands of faces unified in projecting their ideals onto the performer, who now assumes the shamanistic status of a religious hero. The picture seeks to make it clear how this is essentially tantamount with Elvis Presley rising from the dead, or all four Beatles playing together right now, or, why not say it, Jesus Christ coming back.
The thrust of Sugar Man’s detective story, as South African journalists investigate lyrics and follow leads to find Rodriguez, happens in the mid-to-late 1990s, a significant setting. This is just before the sweeping conquest of reality by the Internet, the online avatars and screen-identities dually offering anonymity and unimpeded expression of idiosyncrasy, where you are your Facebook (and when it’s also almost too easy to find anyone). But it also signals the ascendancy of digital celebrity culture and fashion, with history moving faster in binary zeroes and ones. The “cult of personality” is exponentially louder now, the best way to be famous simply…being famous. Fame, the Kardashians and their ratings remind the world, turns us on.
This isn’t a new insight, but I’m not sure if the idiocy and degraded quotient of content has ever been matched to what happens currently. Instead of listening to the words, as that producer was forced to do with Rodriguez, we focus on the face. And perhaps we’re to blame. I think this social blight applies not only to lowbrow consumers of trash TV and fast food, but also to snobbish cultural critics and viewers who won’t see a movie because of an actor (be it Keira Knightley, Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage, Channing Tatum, Anne Hathaway, etc.), something I’ve never understood. Faces are everything in the age of Facebook. And Rodriguez, singing from his shadows, is the antithesis to Facebook. “Words were weapons,” an activist fan remembers of the Rodriguez albums. The content is everything.
That’s the hope of the Humanities, and why their preservation – as spending for them is under constant threat – is important. Rodriguez’s daughters remember how their day-care centers were museums, libraries, and concert halls. In poverty, books, painting, and music served as equalizers in an unfair and economically regressive system, where reality (a concept that repeats itself throughout the film) keeps people face-down, staring at the ground. Some of the most moving images here track along with Rodriguez, struggling to trudge through accumulated snow or vacant lots. The music used here is his, applicable to his life of struggle. But it smoothly crosses oceans to the warmer African climate. It’s curious how Bendjelloul has several sequences of un-contextualized home video footage featuring South Africans, set to Rodriguez songs. The videographed moments don’t really point to anything concrete, any historical historical incident. They’re just captured fragments of reality, coalesced together not by a visual idea but by music. But that’s how music operates in our lives, as a private soundtrack, communicating so communally and yet, more importantly, privately. The singer has been appropriated by the listener, whose subjective interpretation of the world now authors the melody’s function. The song is transformed through the cerebral cortex, as a camera shutter frames, photographs, and steals reality. Art is a two-way conversation, and egotistical selfishness, for creators and consumers, dwindles when it works.
Like other rousing docs, The King of Kong and Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man is too unbelievable to be rendered as narrative fiction, and too precious to be laid out as verite news documentary. Rodriguez is one of the most fascinating film heroes in recent memory, with the nearly supernatural ability to be elusive, even against his own presumed self-interest as a struggling musician. This film’s ecstasies, documenting what is really a messiah’s resurrection, could be somewhat manufactured by the filmmakers. But I don’t really care if what the filmmakers show us is inaccurate or a simplified manipulation of real events. The sculpting of time here is invigorating and beautiful. “People in Detroit need to hear something good.” This is said about Rodriguez’s amazing story as a hometown hero. But we – all of us – also could use some good news. And Searching for Sugar Man is a modern hero’s journey, closer to us than Frodo, Luke Skywalker, or Harry Potter, and no less transcendent. The creation and effect of art, in this instance music, is a pioneer’s calling, an alchemical process transmuting the filth of the everyday to gold, “giving substance to shadows, giving substance evermore.”
Searching for Sugar Man is currently playing at the Landmark Edina Cinema.