searching for sugar man is a great documentary on a perfect subject. jesus ‘sixto’ rodriguez is a mexican-american singer/songwriter from detroit.
he was a kind of day laborer and street angel who left an indelible effect on just about every person he ever came in contact with. his music was like a hybrid of bob dylan and van morrison. deep lyrics. smooth, sweet singing style. melodies that stay with you, haunt you even. messages that impact you.
he got the attention of a couple of motown-related producers (it being detroit, after all) and got a record deal. he put out a couple of albums in 1970-1971. they didn’t sell and he was dropped from the label.
he went back to mostly working and largely forgot about music as a vocation.
but some bootlegs of his music made it to south africa, where in the brewing anti-apartheid era his songs helped usher in a generation of young people ready for change.
some record companies there begin to license his music from impresario clarence avant, who had signed rodriguez to his record deal in the first place. over the years, it’s estimated that he sold over 500,000 records in south africa alone. this all happened without rodriguez knowing because, well, it’s the music business. they just kept the money and rodriguez had no idea of his overseas fame.
and about 25 years later, some of these young people are now journalists and professional adults. they have heard rumors from the beginning of their exposure to him of his death, his suicide even. they resolve to find out who their hero was and what happened to him.
what they find is an amazing talent with an angelic, shy temperament. the story unfolds in a deliberate fashion, building to a most satisfying and endearing conclusion.
this is a great documentary. not because i adore and identify with it’s subject, though i do. it’s great because, using very little set design or anything fancy, save for a couple of brief animations, they create a film that is not just in love with rodriguez, but in love with film, itself. through the editing, the positioning of the interviews, the few file photos they have to work with and the interspersing of sixto’s great songs, film maker malik bendjelloul has created a labor of love that is a perfect work of art all it’s own.
it’s hard to believe that this is his first film, his first real….anything cinematic. adoration of his subject and simple, honest film making techniques create a narrative that is compelling and irresistible.
i’ve been listening to rodriguez constantly for about a month now. at least once a day i listen to all of cold fact. i knew the story inside and out already and yet the film was a revelation. the impact of this film on people who aren’t familiar with him is even greater.
when the film reached it’s conclusion, in a theater with about 40 attendees, almost no one moved until the very end of the credits – always a good sign.
in a small way, i can relate to rodriguez. like a lot of people, i have these high minded ideas and art i want to pursue. some of it is actually finished, and behind me. some is right here on this computer. not many have paid attention, and maybe i mostly think it’s not that good. i’ve worked mostly manual labor my whole life, harboring this part of me, expressing it when i can and doing it when time and energy permits.
i don’t know that i’d deal with people tracking me down, a quarter century later, to tell me i was ‘more famous than elvis’ in their country because of my work as admirably as rodriguez did. can you imagine?
after his brief music career, he just moved on with his life. went to college. worked. raised three daughters.
i don’t think rodriguez ever expected anyone to come looking for him. i don’t think he cared. obviously the money wasn’t important to him. but he did enjoy the recognition, after all that time.
i think some part of this film will touch so many so deeply because they, too will see themself in his story: earnest, poetic, genuine, worthwhile, unappreciated. having the world shake you by the collar and remind you that you are adored and acknowledged reaches into the quietest part of even the most restrained ego.
his story speaks to a true love of art and craft. his honesty and idealism make him appear somehow holy. he’s this gentle soul, with loving daughters, whose wistful self expression will linger on your mind like one of his beautiful songs.
below, listen to his song forget it:
and then, listen to the very catchy song i wonder:
and finally, the trailer for the film: