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Best of 2012 | Searching for Sugar Man

by Brandon Edmonds / 24.12.2012

Originally published 24 July 2012

An American woman in a modest black cocktail dress has wolfish green eyes that flash with neurotic sincerity as she tells me about struggles over food security in California and sweat lodges and how she now lives in Wilderness in the Cape and misses her family. We’re on the Festival shuttle bus going to see Searching for Sugar Man – the brand new documentary about seventies singer-songwriter Rodriguez, the Latino Dylan who, bizarrely, was only ever popular in this country. “He’s much bigger than Elvis and the Rolling Stones here,” someone claims in the film. It’s true-ish. His extraordinary record Cold Fact (1970) has gone platinum here ten times over. Anyway, I’m humouring her, thinking ah another Festival kook, when I hear her say, “My father’s seventy now but he’s still in good shape. He’s still a handsome man.”

She turns out to be Sixto Rodriguez’s eldest daughter, Eva, and the sweet kid in the very red dress shirt on the back seat with us, hip hop cap skew, grinning to himself over some terrifying adolescent notion, is his South African grandson. I wish I liked her dad’s music more. He’s met Van Morrison she tells me, Paul McCartney. Bob Dylan loved the documentary. Her father’s just been on a world tour and the film won the audience award at Sundance. “Redford clapped so hard at the end,” she says. The grandson’s grin grows unfathomably arch – I’m guessing with pride. An emotion probably new to him. And he has every reason to feel it. My God what a great fucking film and what an incredible story and how terrifically cool and humble his shy big-hearted granpappy is and just so many feelgood things all round.

I’ll be crying in the cinema in half an hour, genuinely moved by her dad’s tremulous blue collar dignity, his harsh Detroit life in the snow, working construction, ‘hard labour’ as he puts it, an unsung and obscure nobody who once ran for mayor and lost. Story of his life.

Sugar Man  - The Myth

Yet totally unknown to him, his record, studded with alert bristling folk songs like “I Wonder” and “Sugar Man” and “Crucify your Mind” kept making lifelong fans here. Droll Willem Moller, of Big Sky, reminds us apartheid 30 years ago was the opposite of fun. “TV was kommunis,” he says. Life was frozen. It was black and white. A dreary broken system that policed pleasure and fed on suspicion and fear. The film takes us deep into the Archive of Censored Materials where a copy of Rodriguez’s record still bears the stigmata of some soul damaged maniac who scraped the vinyl to prevent play in the name of national security. Articulate folk music that easily draws you in and questions stuff and defies authority was always going to work here. Folk is also far easier on the ears than thrash punk ever was and it won’t chase your girlfriend from the room.

Songs like “Establishment Blues” influenced the exciting 1stwave alt-Afrikaaner ‘voelvry’ moment (so much richer than its dumbass Belleville afterimage today) with our own harmless lizard-skinned Bukowksi-analogue Koos Kombuis and the incomparable Johannes Kerkorrel. You can feel Cold Fact’s conviction pulsing in the everlastingly wonderful ‘Sit dit Af’ from the era, a song urging a generation to terminate the propagandistic drip-feed of State television, still relevant as ever. “For many South Africans, Rodriguez was the soundtrack to our lives,” says delightful Mabu Vinyl impresario, Steven “Sugar” Segerman, who, along with a local music writer, is directly/lovingly responsible for tracking the singer down and resurrecting his career. He remembers walking into homes and seeing Abbey Road, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Cold Fact at the time. It was just that big here. But nobody knew anything about Rodriguez, the floating Mexican-American stoner, who looked like Carlos the Jackal in black shades, on the cover. There was a rumour he’d set himself on fire onstage when the record didn’t sell. Everyone just assumed he was dead. Another fiery martyr too good for this unfeeling world.

Sugar Man - The Man

But mega-fan Segerman had to know more and put the singer on a milk carton, like he was lost, like one of the haunting Gert Van Rooyen kids, on a hokey 90s website, asking for information. Eva responded and the rest is unfolding as you read this. Maybe the States will finally make Rodriguez their own? Maybe he’ll move out of his spartan Detroit home where he’s lived for forty years? Maybe he’ll see a bit of the money he’s due and feel the artistic validation that’s been denied him so long? Maybe.

What’s undeniable is the film’s affecting power as we see Eva’s real-time camcorder footage of her father’s first tour of the country in 1998. He’s big enough for limousines, for deluxe suites, for stadiums, weird fan tattoo art, TV interviews, headlines, and a professional impersonator.

We know by now how rewarding the adulation must be, how overdue and affirming, how right it is, and it’s impossible not to lose it as he steps onstage in Cape Town and says, “Thanks for keeping me alive all these years.” Oh boy, tissue please. Rodriguez apparently gave the money from the tour away. What South Africa has given him is way better than cash, the kind of recognition that makes your family proud. “He’s the best granddad I’ve ever had,” the kid says afterwards. Seriously, tissue anyone?

Don’t miss it on general release in August.

*Searching for Sugarman shows again at DIFF on the 29th July, 5pm at Musgrave B.

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