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Film review: Searching for Sugar Man

Yvonne Teh

 

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN
Starring: Stephen "Sugar" Segerman, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, Eva Rodriguez
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Category: IIA (English)

 

Searching for Sugar Man tells a story so incredible it sounds too far-fetched to be true. But an American folk singer-songwriter, estimated to have sold fewer than 100 records in his home country, really did become a musical hero to hundreds of thousands of people living on another continent.

Furthermore, the film about his life, made by Algerian Swedish director-writer Malik Bendjelloul, won the best documentary feature Oscar at the Academy Awards earlier this year.

Detroit native Sixto Rodriguez recorded two albums - Cold Fact in 1970, and Coming from Reality a year later - which producers had high hopes for. But sales for both were so bad he was released from his contract two weeks before Christmas 1971, leaving a third album uncompleted.

Somewhere along the lines a copy of Cold Fact made its way to South Africa (via an American woman visiting the country, according to legend). His music struck a chord with the country's white, liberal, middle class, who this "inner-city poet" taught that one could be pro-society and yet anti-establishment. Rodriguez became a bigger star than Elvis and The Rolling Stones in 1970s South Africa.

At the same time very little was known about Rodriguez. Even the manner of his assumed death was not certain, besides it being a public suicide - some people believed the enigmatic musician had set himself on fire performing on stage one night, while others leaned towards the idea he had shot himself at the end of a bad concert.

In the '90s, record shop owner Stephen "Sugar" Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, two Cape Town-based fans of the American singer-songwriter, decided to hunt for more details about their idol, including how he died.

Searching for Sugar Man chronicles their quest and features interviews with individuals who had worked with Rodriguez, including the producers of Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, along with his three adult daughters.

Shot mainly in Cape Town and Detroit, the documentary features far more than just "talking heads". Best of all, it includes Rodriguez's sublime songs and music. Even without knowing his story, songs like Sugar Man, The Establishment Blues, I Think of You and Cause cannot help but touch one's heart.

A genuinely feel-good film that shows how truth can sometimes be more interesting than fiction.

It also helps that Searching for Sugar Man comes across as being as much a labour of love for Bendjelloul as searching for Rodriguez was for Segerman and Strydom, and making music for Rodriguez.

 

Searching for Sugar Man opens April 25

 

yvonne.teh@scmp.com

 

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