WATCH THE FILM BEFORE YOU READ THIS – NO ATTEMPT TO AVOID SPOILERS
“Silver magic ships you carry jumpers, coke, sweet mary jane”
Sixto Rodriguez recorded two albums. But they flopped. He abandoned his music career and became a labourer and renovator, living in relative poverty for the next few decades. Unbeknownst to him, his catchy folk protest songs had become phenomenally popular in South Africa, where he was considered “bigger than Elvis”. Two determined fans track him down. He travels to Cape Town – and experiences a joyous and emotional ‘homecoming’ that hints at the life that could have been if his popularity had caught on in the States.
If this all sounds too good to be true, then the worrying noises on the internet are that it may be. Bendjelloul’s documentary is a slickly edited progression of talking heads that tell an extraordinarily touching story. Sadly it sounds as if he’s smoothed over some of the inconvenient details of the real-life narrative – Sugar Man’s mini-career in Oz, for example.
Nonetheless, there is a remarkable story at the heart of this film. Rodriguez has a soulful voice, an obvious artistic talent (working class folk-protest, with a strong Dylanesque slant) and adoring fans that love him. Most of all he is a true gent – a sweet, sincere, humble, noble working class man who has lived unaware of his popularity in a distant land. He refuses to reflect on the alternate, celebrity lifestyle he could have led (at one point his daughter remarks that he is “too grounded”, refusing to get carried away). Instead, he and his daughters both reflect gratitude to the other main subject of this film – white South Africans who were reaching out for a subculture to defy the extreme authoritarianism of apartheid. Two Rodriguez-loving music fans do the leg work to track him down, not even believing that he is alive, and their joy when he comes to Cape Town (“these are the days of miracle and wonder” says one, channeling Paul Simon) is wonderful to watch. The twin subjects of this film are equally fascinating, and the third act is moving and uplifting. It felt like the whole audience were grinning and wanted to applaud at the end. Searching for Sugar Man is flawed – but beautiful.