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Searching for Sugarman (an Existential life*) – Malik Bendjelloulan




 Searching for Sugarman (an Existential life*) – Malik Bendjelloulan

(*my addition)

This year’s film not to miss. It has been gathering momentum since winning best documentary at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. This is a story you can’ t believe – but want to. A story that then delights you by being true.

Chinese myth:

An invisible red thread connects those who are destined to meet, regardless of time, place, or circumstances. The thread may stretch or tangle but will never break.

Sixto Diaz Rodriguez is now 70 years-old and has lived in the same run-down house in downtown Detroit for the last 40 years. He works hard and dirty in demolition and construction. He lives a modest, frugal life with few possessions and even fewer illusions. His talent has generated a fortune he has either given away to his family or been cheated out of. He has three beautiful articulate daughters who love him and who rightly describe him as man rich in the real things of value in human existence. He seems more solitary than lonely with a deep sense of self that is at home in the world but contentedly not of it. He is truly a remarkable man – in more ways than one.

Rodriguez also plays guitar and writes songs. Until recently, in the United States, only a few musicians and one or two experienced record producers had ever heard of him. Yet all regard him as one of the most striking and memorable artists they ever met. We distrust their memory when they compare favourably his only two record releases in 1970 (Cold Fact) and 1971 (Coming From Reality) to Bob Dylan. Until we hear the songs they speak of: and as with other moments in this cherishable film, we find impossibly, but thrillingly, they are right and their judgement true.

Rodriguez, born of Mexican immigrant parents, lost his mother at 3 and was raised in an orphanage; then going on later to take a degree in Philosophy. A working man in thought and spirit, throughout the 70s and 80s he went about raising his three girls; running, unsuccessfully for mayor on a ticket supporting the poor; and working in construction. And playing the guitar and writing songs.

Meanwhile 8,000 miles away in Apartheid South Africa during the late 80s and early 90s, thanks to a bootlegged Rodriguez tape copied and recopied among liberal young people growing increasingly restless for change, the music and lyrics of this unlikely hero gave a voice to the instinct of rebellion and protest sweeping that troubled continent. A few striking pictures from the 1970s provided an iconic image around which endless sensational rumours coalesced into a sustained mythology. Most of the liberal young white people who played Rodriguez constantly believed he was dead: having supposedly either shot or immolated himself on stage. Certainly the stuff of myths. But completely untrue. The actual truth being even more remarkable and dramatic, if less sensational.

As word of mouth generated a market in bootleg copies, South African record companies bought distribution rights from Rodrigez’ US label and sold over half a million copies. Royalties paid to the US label never got to Rodriguez, still oblivious of his fame in South Africa. This anonymity clearly fuelled the sensational rumours of his death.

Two dedicated South African fans decided to try to resolve the mystery of Rodriguez’ ‘death’ only to discover that he was still alive and well and living in Detroit. So began the train of events that lead to him doing 6 sell out concerts in South Africa in 1998 and arousing the interest of Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul who made Searching for Sugarman.

Let’s be clear: Bedenjelloul’s film is beautifully and cleverly constructed to create a compelling narrative based upon a version of chronological facts that plays to and reinforces the aura of mystery that seems to envelop the man and his life. In reality it seems Rodriguez continued to perform minor gigs over the intervening years from 1971 to his South African re-emergence. While his daughters offer an articulate, sincere testimony both of love and respect for him as a father, we hear nothing of their mother in what must have been to say the least an unorthodox family life. Apparently she was originally in the film but asked to be removed.

The daughters’ reveal a stubborn, rebellious, unconventional spirit, who would take them into the intimidating museums and art galleries of Detroit where he and they looked and felt out of place – so that they could see and experience great art and beauty. These sisters, now apparently securely grounded in their own family lives, hint at a man they love and loved but have in a sense never really known. He carries an air of detachment about him that the camera captures and that I think seems authentic, if unexplained and therefore slightly mysterious: until you put it in the context of a thoughtful, introspective artist happily at home in the deprived working class background of his upbringing and history.

There is a delightful story Eva tells of their arrival in South Africa for the first time: getting off the plane they saw a stretch limo parked up in front of the terminal. Assuming this was for someone important they quickly went round and headed for the terminal only to be called back and told the limo was for them.

Bedenjelloul’s film is undoubtedly creatively manipulative: like all good film-makers he has a story to tell. But one feels it is a story in which the essential facts have been respected and the created narrative one that captures rather than distorts the life of a shy, naturally diffident, refreshingly non-egoistic, essentially private man who likes to play; to write music and share it with others in performance.

The truth may be more rare than mysterious: in a rootless world of endless noise, of wealth and clamouring celebrity, never more apparent than in the music business, this talented, reclusive little man has written about 30 songs that can stand honourably beside those of his own heroes – Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Neil Young etc. He shares none of their fame, their wealth, or their world-wide adulation. But as an artist one feels they would recognize him as an equal. As a man we can only read between the lines of this extraordinary documentary and speculate – but the closing images have a potent pathos and emotional power that brings a tear to the eyes in recognition of the fact that here we have a man who has lived his whole life consistent with his own simple but rooted values. A man perhaps in touch with something precious we have all lost: the wisdom to see his own way; and the courage to follow it, wherever it leads. Without complaint. Or regret.

My hunch is Searching for Sugarman will take this year’s documentary Oscar. I hope not though: it would have the affect, though not the intention, of bringing so much clamouring noise into Rodrigez’ life that it might drown out his quietly impressive inner voice.

There is an air of prosaic destiny about the man whose red thread of life has tangled its way around the world. It would be such a shame for it to break now.

(Rodriguez gives one fully sold out concert at the Festival Hall in November and 3 at the Roundhouse for which there were at time of writing a few tickets left. I’m going).

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