Sugar

I finally got around to seeing the documentary Searching For Sugar Man yesterday. It’s about a folksy singer from Detroit who recorded a couple albums in 1970 and 1971 (with help from Dennis Coffey, famous Motown guitarist, and Bob Babbit, who played bass on famous records like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On).  The music is acoustic-guitar driven, with some strings and some subtle R&B touches that one might not expect from the guitar and vocals.  Rodriguez’s voice is strong and worn, and his tone and socially-conscious focus gain him numerous (it gets annoying) Dylan comparisons throughout the film.  Neither of his albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, did well in America, and Rodriguez got dropped from his label.  He went back to his previous life working in hard labor, ending his commercial music career.

But somehow, his records made their way to South Africa, where he became very popular and an important anti-establishment figure for the white upper-class resistance to Apartheid.  Rumors somehow spread that he had died in dramatic fashion, adding to his mystique. 30 years later, two South Africans decided to track Rodriguez down, since so little was known about him.  They eventually found the man’s daughter with the help of a website, contacted Rodriguez, and brought him to South Africa where he played a number of successful shows.  Rodriguez still works in Detroit to this day, and though he occasionally goes back to South Africa to perform, he has not recorded any new music.

 

The story is great, but the movie is a bit disingenuous — it sets out suggesting that it will clear up the legend behind the elusive, mythical figure that is Rodriguez, but it really doesn’t do much besides add to his legend. There is very little information about the recording of his music and the promotion (or lack thereof) they were given in America.  In addition, we learn nothing about why his label decided to drop him.  There are some strange suggestions from the two principal South African characters in the movie — both white — that the first real resistance to Apartheid appeared in the liberal white upper-class community in South Africa, partially because of Rodriguez’s music (as if the oppressed black population was just sitting around while whites grabbed their Rodriguez records and lead them to freedom).  Once the film makers find the singer and you want to know what the heck happened to him, most of the time with Rodriguez is spent on extended shots of him walking down Detroit streets with his guitar while his music plays in the background.

But it’s a compelling story, and we do learn some very interesting facts, like how the South African government censored records they didn’t want people to hear:  by scratching out individual tracks on the vinyl LPs with a razor.  The internet is amazing; without it, Rodriguez would probably still not know that over half a million South Africans out of roughly forty million (according to the movie) own his albums.

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