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South African Elvis – A Film Review

November 1, 2012

Unravelling the true story of an unknown rock mystery man

Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary directed by Malik Bendjelloul, 2012, 85 minutes

Sometimes, maybe too much of the time, the music industry lets a great talent slip into oblivion, disappearing into the cracks and crinkles of rock n’ roll history never to be heard from again. That was the case with Sixto Rodriquez until a pair of curious and passionate fans started “Searching for Sugar Man.” What they found will be a revelation to most North American rock fans.

Sixto (a.k.a. Jesus) Rodriquez was born in 1942 of Mexican heritage. His father relocated to Detroit to get a job in the booming auto industry. Sixto played guitar, wrote songs and worked the backwater clubs of Motown until he was “discovered” playing Miles Davis-style with his back to the audience in one call The Sewer. The rest should have been history, as they say, but history passed him by after two albums flopped despite high praise from Billboard magazine.

Rodriquez sank into the Detroit slums, got a job doing hard labour in the demolition and construction industry, and played his guitar just for the pleasure of it. No one was interested in recording a third album only to see it tank like his 1970 record Cold Facts and the 1971 effort Coming from Reality. Then along came two South Africans with a burning curiosity to find out what happened to a man who, for them, was bigger than Elvis, the Beatles or Simon and Garfunkel.

Searching for Sugar Man won two Sundance awards.

Searching for Sugar Man is the story of what they uncovered and it is an amazing odyssey born of love for Rodriquez’s music which in turn was born of a love of freedom in their apartheid-racked homeland. They grew up listening to Rodriquez much like some of us did with tunes by Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan. They heard that their musical hero had gone into hiding with a left-wing terrorist group, died of a drug overdose, shot himself in the head and that he had he had poured kerosene on himself and lit a match on stage.

Stop tape! How can this be? How can such a musical phenomenon miss the boat so completely? Is this a mockumentary? Are the filmmakers so good that they are snowing the viewer with this tale of rags to rags? How could the star-maker machinery chew this guy up and spit him out in Dearborn, Michigan, without ever looking back to see what they had dismissed?

It isn’t a mockumentary, of course, but Swedish film maker Malik Bendjelloul should be saluted for this convincing, well-paced bio-pic. His innovative editing, use of special effects and the masterfully emotive camera work of Camilla Skagerström make Searching a journey that takes us into the dark corners of this mystery man’s life and extraordinary music.

Kudos to Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, a Cape Town jeweller turned record store owner, and journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom for doggedly tracking down this wonderful story. Double kudos for digging into the past to find the sometimes unsavoury characters that helped reconstruct the saga of Sixto, including the record producers who were going to make him famous, a celebrated South African rocker and a toque-wearing bricklayer.

Particularly moving are the comments by Rodriquez’s three daughters, young women who remember growing up working poor with a father who took them to the Detroit library to learn about the world. The interview with Clarence Avant, the former chairman of Motown Records and quite possibly the man who absconded with the record profits, is revealingly scary.  Scarier is the scene that has a former apartheid government archivist showing us how the police scratched songs off Cold Facts making it unplayable in that time of extreme paranoia.

Perhaps most astounding of all, though, is the soundtrack that powers this special film. One reviewer described it as a cross between Donovan and José Feliciano, but there is something earthy and eerily real about Rodriquez’s lyrics, something that speaks of poverty, loneliness, frustration with the system, and of resistance. It is the music that young white South Africans danced to, swooned over and adopted as anthems for their anti-apartheid movement.

Like North American parents of the early 1960s, their parents probably tried to ban the playing of protest music in the house. Like early Dylan, Rodriquez was no doubt banned from some household stereos. In fact, the repressive South African government also banned his albums from the record stores with predictable results.

It might have been because the Sugar Man track is about dope pedlars and heroin highs (“Silver magic ships you carry/Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane/Sugar man you’re the answer/That makes my questions disappear”). Or it could have shocked the folks to hear Rodriquez ask “I wonder how many times you had sex/I wonder do you know who’ll be next.” But more than likely the government ban came after the authorities heard The Establishment Blues (“This system’s gonna fall soon, to an angry young tune”).

Questions remain. What happened to the money that must have flowed from the sale of a half-million records in South Africa? Why didn’t Rodriquez get rich on those sales? Who did get rich at his expense? (Clarence Avant, who had the profits sent to his Sussex/A&R label, wouldn’t cop to the charge.) Why did the American music industry leave him behind? (The producers shrug.) Did the music establishment figure Rodriquez was a one album wonder? (The producers shrug again.) Did they have bigger fish to fry? Was it because he was Mexican?

Searching only hints at the answers. He is shown living the life of a recluse in a broken down house which he heats with a wood furnace. The camera reveals a quiet, soft-spoken humble man who simply shakes his head when asked about his failed career. We see Rodriquez walking unsteadily in the snow, working at his demolition job, and strumming his guitar. His daughters fill in some of the blanks. One tells us that he ran for mayor of Detroit at one point, coming in 139th on the ballot. The endnotes to the film tell us that he gave his money to family and friends.

Readers who want the whole story of this amazing singer-songwriter – a lost and almost completely forgotten street poet of the late 1960s – will have to see the film, winner of two Sundance Film Festival awards. As South African writer Rian Malan, interviewed in the film, advised his London Telegraph readers, go see for yourself “ifthe gods of rock and roll made a serious mistake back in 1969, and Rodriguez is what we imagined him to be: an authentic American icon.”

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