“Searching for Sugar Man” — An Almost Unbelievable Story That Had to be Told

A year ago, I recommended Meghan Eckman’s 2010 documentary film The Parking Lot Movie, which exposes the shamelessness of our status-obsessed culture as it’s experienced by charmingly philosophical parking lot attendants in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s a film that one doesn’t let go of. I continue to encourage friends and family to watch Eckman’s important and revealing film and have since watched it again myself.

Today, I’m enthusiastic about recommending Malik Bendjelloul’s 2012 documentary film Searching for Sugar Man, which tells the almost unbelievable story of a Mexican-American singer-songwriter named Rodriguez, who in the early 1970s released two albums (Cold Fact and Coming From Reality) that bombed in the United States but became widely popular and influential in South Africa at the ugly height of apartheid.

Rodriguez. Film still by Hal Wilson

Rodriguez. Film still by Hal Wilson

Incredibly, the Detroit-based Rodriguez, who turned to a career in construction after having no measurable success in the United States, had no idea that his music had inspired those who were aligned with the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. And his South African fans — who got their hands on bootlegged copies of his records, as speculation has it — knew very little about him beyond the fact that he’d reportedly killed himself.

Cape Town record store owner Stephen Segerman says in the film, “In the mid-’70s, if you walked into a random, white liberal middle-class household that had a turntable and a pile of pop records … you would always see Cold Fact by Rodriguez. To us, it was one of the most famous records of all time.”

And Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, a South African journalist who was as eager as Segerman to learn more about Rodriguez, explains that “in South Africa, Cold Fact was the album that gave people permission to free their minds and start thinking differently.”

Searching for Sugar Man chronicles the efforts of Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom to find out what became of Rodriguez 25 years after Cold Fact inspired a generation in South Africa. The story, as I described it above, is almost unbelievable. It’s so deeply affecting that it begs the uncomfortable question: What if Rodriguez’s story hadn’t been told?

David Brensilver

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