Movie Review: Looking for Sugar Man (2012)

sugarmanYou know, it’s funny how life will surprise you sometimes. Within a few hours of each other, a neighbor and a new friend both mentioned the same new film on New Year’s Eve to me: Looking for Sugar Man. Each described it slightly differently. The first said that it was a funky, Motown kind of artist that was rediscovered and then was bigger than Mandela. That gave me an image of masses of black fans. The new friend told me it was about a homeless guy that was big in South Africa. That gave me an image of a homeless guy with needles sticking out of his arms puking on some fans. Well, neither of those images was quite true. Sixto Rodriguez is a working-class guy from beaten-down Detroit who recorded two incredible albums in 1970 (Cold Fact) and 1971 (Coming in from Reality) that went nowhere in the US but which had incredible success in, of all places, South Africa. The film actually starts with the story of his South African legend in which he died on stage either by self-immolation or by blowing his brains out. We get to discover many tracks of his two albums as we meet various people that crossed his path over the years: producers, friends, and the fans in South Africa who had no clue who he really was. The film keeps you guessing until they finally show the aging but incredibly humble and lucid Sixto in a Detroit shack – still working and still plodding along. The most moving piece of the film is coverage of his discovery by the South African fan base and this subsequent concerts there in 1998. It was rather moving to see him in this totally natural pose as the guitar and lyrical hero on stage before thousands of screaming fans – a stark contrast to the loneliness that we feel as we follow him through a snowy and desolate Detroit in his neighborhood.

Searching_for_Sugar_Man_2The film is very well written and well-shot, with a few key animations to cover periods where there was no film footage and a clever way of showing pseudo music videos of many of his best songs. The one thing that I found a bit disturbing, was the absence of any black people at all in this film. We are told that he was a hero to the Afrikaan liberals as his lyrics “set them free” but we don’t know what the reaction of black South Africans was and they are totally absent from all the shots of the crowds at the 1998 concert. Does he resonate with the oppressed population as much as with what was the ruling class? It would seem perhaps an explanation to why he never embraced the fame in Capetown: he was happy to be a star for about four times in his life, but preferred to live among people like himself rather than “liberated” whites in South Africa? If he had been a symbol in the fight against apartheid by BLACK folks in South Africa, would he have stayed with his daughter there in Capetown? The various interviews with him were quite terse (he seems to be a really quiet guy when he isn’t writing songs) and by white South Africans so the question never came up…and there is the bigger question of why he never made it in the US. Bad timing? Too political? A name that was too Latino to get associated with engaged folk music? Another mystery…

Nonetheless, run don’t walk to see this moving documentary and try to pick up the three extant albums: Cold Fact, Coming in from Reality, and the Live Fact based on his concerts in South Africa.


About mfinocchiaro

IT Architecture Guru for large PLM software company but dabbling in Web 2.0 and other stuff.
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