Movie Review: ‘Searching for Sugar Man’

July 28, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
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Imagine a Latino-American musician who wrote lyrics that many in the music business claimed were more powerful than those of the great Bob Dylan himself. He was supposed to have been huge. He would have definitely eclipsed Bob, but didn’t. Why? Who was this man?

Sixto Rodriguez, the subject of “Searching for Sugar Man,” was an unsung American hero, who, while living in poverty and obscurity in Detroit, almost single-handedly caused the downfall of South African apartheid.

Never heard of him? Nobody had. Until now. In this labor-of-love documentary, his unsung story is finally, brilliantly, and heartwarmingly sung.

The year is 1968. A mythic musician roams the mean streets of Detroit. Switching between talking-head-type interviews and panning shots of desolate, random cityscapes of Detroit, accompanied by the music of Rodriguez, the film starts off heading toward what looks like a grim, depressing portrait of a deceased local musician.

We come to learn that he was considered an icon, a rebel, and a hero by Afrikaners. He brought the spirit of American civil rights and Vietnam War era anti-establishment protests to South Africa’s fight against apartheid.

His music freed the people, and especially inspired the Afrikaner musicians at the forefront of the anti-apartheid movement to step up, rabble-rouse, and speak out against the inhumanity of the apartheid system. South Africa banned Rodriguez’s records. Fans tattooed his face on their arms.

To scout out the story, the detective work utilized the time-honored ploy of “following the money.” This tracks down one Clarence Avant, a manager, who doesn’t know what happened to his former client.

The trail then goes cold until a tip and a map search turn up the name of Dearborn, Michigan. It also turns up three grown daughters—Eva, Regan, and Sandra Rodriguez—and this is when the film really takes off.

According to strikingly handsome eldest daughter Eva, an intellectual hippie-artist, their father was a charismatic yet entirely humble Mexican-American musician. He was a hard worker who did construction and demolition, but with an entertainer’s flair, wearing tuxedos while carrying refrigerators on his back.

He’d majored in philosophy. He’d run for city council. He’d raised his kids well. All the while he exuded serenity and tranquility. And he was “bigger than Elvis” in South Africa. The mystery deepens.

Looking like a dead ringer for lead singer John Kay of the 1970s rock band Steppenwolf, Rodriguez’s voice sounds like a combination of Jose Feliciano, Dylan, and the 1970s Native American band Redbone. His music is distinctly ’70s in its use of the string sections and flutes popular at the time.

One could say much more, but the film harbors a secret about music, and about Sixto Rodriguez. It would be sacrilege to spoil it. One music executive sums up the magic of this film by quoting a Paul Simon lyric from Simon’s South African-influenced album “Graceland”: “These are the days of miracles and wonder.”

There will be a rediscovery and resurgence of Rodriguez’s music. See the film, learn the secret, and be inspired. These are indeed the days of miracles and wonder.

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