You may already have heard hype about Searching for Sugar Man, the winner of this year’s best feature-length documentary award. The film follows several South African fans of the seventies American folk singer, Rodriguez, as they uncover the story of this largely unrecognized talent. But the film doesn’t just explore the story of this amazing artist; it also demonstrates the ways in which an artist’s persona can align with a sense of place through its investigative format, formal elements, and the music of Rodriguez itself.
As the film’s title suggests, Sugar Man portrays a search for the location of Rodriguez. In the process, the film initially presents a sad story of a failed artist. Rodriguez released just two albums, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, in 1970 and 1971 respectively. Neither album sold well in the United States, but Rodriguez’s work found an audience in apartheid-era South Africa. The film portrays the ways in which the political economy of seventies South Africa enabled Rodriguez’s popularity there without the artist’s knowledge of his own success. We see the repressive regimes of the conservative National Party, which censored Rodriquez’s work, making it all the more attractive to youth of that era. The film suggests that young, white South Africans found inspiration in Rodriguez’s work, prompting some to even protest the abhorrent apartheid policies of the era.
In this section of the film, we see how Rodriguez’s work becomes connected with this era for this group of fans. The filmmakers reinforce this connection with beautiful shots of South African scenery whilst playing tracks from the Rodriguez catalog. We also hear the recollections of the fans, who describe their experiences of listening to this music and all of its associations with their experience growing up at that particular time and place. We get nostalgic home videos, news reports of protests, and stills of that period. In short, we see how fans connect the music they listen to with the time and place in which they listened to it.
The story doesn’t end there, though. The filmmakers ultimately locate the artist, revealing that Rodriguez still resides in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, where he lives humbly and works as a manual laborer. Here, as in the introductory sections of the film where we learn about Rodriguez, the artist becomes a proxy for the city of Detroit–working class, humble, and yet imbued with a rich artistic history. The trailer below demonstrates these connections between time, place, and persona quite nicely:
But like Detroit, which news outlets and politicians frequently eulogize, Rodriguez persists, defying the myth of his gruesome public suicide. Rather than the embittered, shell of a man that so many would-be rock stars become when they fail to find a mainstream audience, Rodriguez appears to be a fully-actualized person. He seems comfortable with his position in life, taking pride in his work, both artistic and manual. Along these lines, Rodriguez’s daughters poignantly describe their upbringing, depicting a man of dignity who advocated for what he believed despite failing to achieve socially-recognized success. So while Sugar Man revels in the spectacle of Rodriguez’s first visit to South Africa with sold out stadium-sized crowds and classic acts of fan adoration (throwing bras on stage, seeking autographs, lighting up at the mere sight of the artist), Rodriguez’s zen-like calm and embrace of each moment’s pleasures sets him apart as a subject for a rock documentary.
In the process of viewing this amazing film, I too felt a connection with these beautiful songs and the artist who created them. That weekend, I was coping with some disappointing news and feeling frustrated about life. Rodriguez’s story put my situation into perspective and inspired me to focus on being true to myself rather than dwelling on the setback. So now, Rodriguez’s music will forever be linked to this time and place in my life, especially this song, “Crucify Your Mind.”
It may be Rodriguez’s ability to connect with his audience in this way that enables him to so easily become the soundtrack for places as far flung as South Africa while at the same time representing the Motor City in both sound, lyrics, and personal history. Searching for Sugar Man, then, ends up demonstrating how great art manages to be both quintessentially of its time and place while at the same time transcendent.