‘Searching For Sugar Man’ – True Story or the Making of a Myth?

Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man
Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the Oscar nominated documentary Searching For Sugar Man you might want to stop reading right now.

The other day I was talking to a documentary filmmaker I admire quite a bit and mentioned how I thought Searching For Sugar Man was a lock for Best Documentary in this year’s Oscar race. He cocked his head and gave me a funny look.

“Do you really think so?” he asked, pointing out how the viewer doesn’t really get to know Rodriguez in the film. You get to meet his daughters and the two guys who were searching for him, but you don’t meet Rodriguez himself.

“The movie isn’t true,” he went on to say. “They left out a lot of the story. He wasn’t as obscure as they make it out in the movie.”

To say I was surprised by this observation would be an understatement. Searching For Sugar Man has been mentioned by many of my friends have been raving about Malik Bendjelloul‘s doc since the summer and not just their favorite documentary, but as their favorite movie. It was a huge hit at Sundance last year and almost universally praised by critics coast to coast.

For those of you that don’t know the story, Searching for Sugar Man is the tale of an American musician who went by the name of Rodriguez (aka Sixto) and put out two records in the early ’70s before disappearing after his career didn’t take off in the USA and rumors of his death by suicide started to spread. Yet, while Rodriguez was deemed a commercial failure at home, his records were extremely popular in South Africa and, about that suicide… not so much.

The film follows two South African fans — Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom — as they try to find out if the rumors of Rodriguez’s death are true, and what exactly happened to him.

The problem with all of this is he wasn’t exactly “rediscovered” by the two South African fans. As Rodriguez himself knows, the Detroit musician released a “Best of Rodriguez” compilation in Australia in 1977. That lead to a tour of medium sized halls in Australia in 1979, which in turn lead to his live album in 1979, recorded during the tour. Then, of course, there was the arena tour of Australia with Midnight Oil when they were becoming one of the biggest acts in the world in 1981 and he ironically covered the band’s “Redneck Wonderland” at Sundance last year. His records were also in print in numerous countries in Europe throughout the ’70s and ’80s and into the ’90s as well.

That also brings into question how hard the South African fans shown in the film really tried to find Sixto in the first place. We’re told Segerman is a music store owner and yet he doesn’t seem to know record distributors have one of the most comprehensive databases in the world and anyone who has ever worked in a record shop or just hung-out in record shops in the ’70s and ’80s would know that. It might have been harder to find an import record in the ’80s but not that hard. People did it all the time. I ordered a copy of The Easybeats from Australia because it was the only compilation I could find with both “Friday On My Mind” and “Good Times” on it. By the late eighties and early nineties all of those records were cataloged on computers as well.

Almost no one in the US wrote about any of this in their glowing reviews. No one took the time to Google the man after watching the film. Perhaps the story was so compelling they didn’t want to spoil it. It is somewhat surprising no one has written about these facts in the US considering the film infers the artist had been neglected in his home country all these years. You would think they would want to know everything about him.

On the other hand, reviewers in the UK noticed these flaws almost immediately. For example, this review by Peter Bradshaw in the UK Guardian:

“Here, though, we come to the flaw in the movie. It gives the audience the impression that after Rodriguez was dropped by the label, he simply collapsed into non-showbiz obscurity until his South African fan base was mobilised. But director Malik Bendjelloul is guilty of the sin of omission. A rudimentary internet search shows Rodriguez’s musical career did not vanish the way the film implies, and the film has clearly skated round some facts, and frankly exaggerated the mystery, to make a better and more emotional story.”

Even more telling than the review is the comment section. Comments like one from “mcruz” writing, “(Rodriguez’s) ‘Cold Fact’ was a popular album in the late ’70s in my high school in Australia.”

Fulhamish says, “I had ‘Cold Fact’ on when a friend came round to dinner the other day. She and her mates had listened to it loads at uni in England in the late nineties and she was bemused that this film made out he was somehow forgotten. Still, looking forward to seeing the film.”

The comments were so numerous BaddHamster finally responded, “So he’s an obscure musician who apparently everybody in the world (judging from this thread) has heard at some time or another? Cool.”

Not just around the world, music geeks in the US were apparently aware of Rodriguez as well. I know this because I went to my local used record store and asked about him. I got the typical jaded record store response to my inquiry about the film and one I expect Barry (Jack Black) from High Fidelity would give. These grizzled vets were glad Rodriguez was getting some love but basically called BS on the film itself. As one who has seen Stephen Frears‘ excellent ode to record store workers at least twenty times, I expected nothing less.

There was a lot of other material online calling the doc into question including this screed from something called The Lefsetx Letter. Mostly, however, there was universal praise for the Sundance winner. Why not? It’s a real crowd-pleaser.

There is also more to the film than just the search for Rodriguez. There is the story of young Afrikaners opposed to apartheid in the ’70s and ’80s. The fact Rodriguez’s music somehow touched a nerve in the hearts of young white liberals in South Africa in a way Bob Dylan and the Beatles touched other people around the world in the ’60s. It is the story of the power of music.

My question for the audience, however, is how much leeway do expect from a documentary filmmaker? There’s a lot of talk about the truths in films such as Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty which are both “based on” or “inspired by” real events, but what about a documentary, which is expected to tell us actual truths?

Is it okay to bend the truth in order to make the story better than it really is? And what do you think about these new revelations about Sugar Man?

BONUS: In 2001 Nas sampled Rodriguez’s “Sugar Man” on “You’re Da Man”

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