Genius never dies. Sometimes it gets buried under a mountain of indifference. Sometimes it languishes in the wilderness. Sometimes genius has to earn a living smashing things or hauling garbage or some other un-glamorous thing. And every once in a while, genius that was ignored or forgotten is resurrected and earns its rightful place in history. “Searching For Sugar Man” is a documentary that explores the amazing story of one such genius.
The singer-songwriter known as Rodriguez is an enigma of the most singular kind. The story of his life and work is the kind of roundabout miracle of circumstance and coincidence that Vonnegut wrote about. Basically, he is a Mexican-American singer-songwriter from Detroit who made a few dozen recordings in the late 1960s and early 1970s. His label and the people who played on his records were associated with Motown, one of the most storied and successful record labels in history. Despite this amazing luck, his recording career never took off and he was dropped by his label. He then supposedly resumed living a normal life, having decided that a music career was not in the cards. If this were the end of the story then this would simply be a sad tale of one of the countless of artists throughout history who never broke through. But then this film would not exist.
Somehow, in some way, a copy of his first album made it to South Africa. The story of when and how exactly this happened has passed into legend, but it was a completely improbable twist of fate that would eventually re-write Rodriguez’s story. It’s a random and coincidental event, but somehow it became something much greater. Disaffected white South Africans begin to circulate his music around the country, at first through a series of bootlegs and eventually through their own record companies. Eventually (and again the exact details of how this happened are somewhat unclear), he becomes an elder statesman of rebellion, and the white South Africans protesting artistic censorship and apartheid in their country elevate him as a cultural icon. His music becomes a cornerstone influence on the first real wave of alternative music there. Basically, he becomes, in the words of one fan, “bigger than Elvis”. But the social values expressed in his music make him more like Dylan or Joan Baez; young people looked to his lyrics and songs as statements on how they should live. All of this happened completely unbeknownst to Rodriguez himself, who had a simple existence, far removed from the impact of his work.
It’s easy to see how Rodriguez could have been ignored in North America. During the late sixties, there were literally thousands of politically-minded singer-songwriters in the world. His music is poetic and edgy, but it possesses an oft-kilter perspective that probably killed his chances of being a “star”. On his debut record “Cold Fact”, there are a number of songs with strange, experimental arrangements. As an artist, he has all hallmarks of a truly creative spirit, but these same qualities probably made him dead weight commercially during this period of history. Thankfully, his story didn’t end there.
It’s difficult for me to write about this film without giving too much away, but I will say that at one point while watching I was weeping uncontrollably. Things like this just aren’t supposed to happen. These events are so improbable that the tale almost defies belief. This film is a detective story, a fan letter, a biography, and a minor miracle all rolled together. “Searching for Sugar Man” is a story about the power of music and the power of ideas. It’s about second chances (or third or fourth, etc). It’s about accepting the realities of life, while striving to transcend those realities through beauty. It’s about the real impact that art can have on the world, even when all seems lost. Most of all, this is a story about hope, one of the most basic and indefinable of human emotions. Everyone should see this film.