Searching for Sugar Man written and directed by Malik Bendjelloul (Red Box Films, Passion Pictures, Canfield Pictures, PG-13, 86 minutes)
Starring Sixto Rodriguez and Stephen “Sugar” Segerman.
With the advent of the internet, globalization has become truly global. Everyone has the ability to connect with anyone. In business, you can accept a client from half way across the world. In relationships, you can fall in love and date on Skype. There’s no hiding in the modern world.
But before the internet, humanity encountered a unique era, connected but far apart. In the 40 years after World War II, the commercial jet became a staple of travel. With some money saved, the world becomes your oyster.
Yet at the same time, global communication remained a costly ordeal. You could make a long distance call. But was it really worth it?
This era of increased travel and minimal continental communication conjures the unique story found in Searching for Sugar Man.
An American Invasion
In the 70s and 80s, South African youth found their muse in an American singer-songwriter, Rodriguez. As the story goes, a college student brought Rodriguez’s original LP to South Africa and shared it with some acquaintances.
The album spread like wildfire. Rodriguez became the voice of a generation, an act bigger than Elvis. But oddly, not much was known about this folk singer. Some had heard he lit himself on fire in an encore, using self-immolation as his final artistic act. Others had heard he put a bullet through his temple on stage in response to some hecklers.
Either way, Rodriguez was widely considered long deceased.
So a few South African fans decided to answer one basic question: how did Rodriguez die?
What follows is a heartwarming exploration into the life of a failed musician, the ways in which music connects people throughout the world, and the unique scenario of emerging globalization.
For me, the beauty of this story lies with the sheer oddity of it. Don’t read any further if you want Searching for Sugar Man to surprise, but this documentary’s twist occurs when the South African fans discover Rodriguez is alive. A blue-collar worker from Detroit, Rodriguez has lived a life of anonymity for decades, unaware of the adoring canaille half a world away.
A supposedly failed musician with two albums from the early 1970s to his name, Rodriguez returned to his roots, raised a family, and contributed to his community.
Setting aside the sketchy monetary issues of where the royalties were going over the course of a successful South African career, the distance between artist and fan offers a unique outlook on human advances in technology.
If Rodriguez recorded his records twenty years earlier, the plausibility of it traveling across the globe and finding purchase is minimal. Air travel, while available, is sketchy at best. And you more than likely wouldn’t bring an LP on a transatlantic trip.
If Rodriguez had recorded his album 20 years later, the emerging online space would have sent the record across the globe quickly, allowing for Rodriguez to achieve real-time responses to his work. He could’ve toured South Africa quickly in reaction to his fanbase.
Why This Event Will Never Happen Again
Searching for Sugar Man makes me think of my old band. We weren’t world beaters but we had some interesting songs. We were playing shows during the pinnacle of Myspace and the fledgling Facebook communities. Our website had a message board where we engaged in meaningful conversations with fans local and abroad.
Supposing our album took off in a faraway place, say Belgium. We would’ve known. Quickly.
That’s why Searching for Sugar Man is so odd. Rodriguez, an excellent song writer, failed in the domestic U.S. market, and had no clue about the success of his albums in the global market. He spent decades going about his daily business unaware of his success.
This occurrence will never happen again. The real-time response of a connected globe allows for art to follow the money.
Searching for Sugar Man is a joy to watch. If you love music and mystery, this film is for you.
Verdict: 4 out of 5