ByTowne ByTowne Cinema
325 Rideau St. Ottawa K1N 5Y4
Info Line: (613) 789-FILM
Searching For Sugar Man is a winning musical detective story about a failed, forgotten early ’70s rocker who became a huge success halfway across the world – in absentia, while presumed dead for decades.
The artist known simply as Rodriguez was a bit of enigma even before being ‘discovered’ in the late ’60s by some music industry notables; those who’d noticed his occasional gigs in his native Detroit wondered if the elusive musician was a homeless drifter. Signed to Motown Records by Clarence Avant, he released two albums through A&M, in 1971 and 1972. Both sank without a trace commercially, despite high hopes and good reviews that drew parallels to Bob Dylan. His contract dropped, the singer-songwriter simply disappeared.
In South Africa, however, the discs somehow managed to find an audience before they even had a local distributor. Rodriguez’s hard-luck lyrics about urban life, bolstered by appealing tunes and a distinctive voice, hit a chord with young liberal whites living in the Big Brother bubble of the apartheid system (which banned his vaguely rebellious songs from the airwaves, natch). Over the years, they sold an estimated 500,000 copies, an extraordinary number that made him ‘bigger than Elvis’ in the country.
It was believed among South African fans that Rodriguez died tragically – the most widely circulated tales being that he’d overdosed, shot or burnt himself alive onstage. Yet these rumours were entirely unsubstantiated, and indeed virtually nothing was known about him beyond cryptic hints found in the albums themselves. A couple of particularly obsessed types took it upon themselves to research matters further, setting up a website to draw any clues. To everyone’s shock, one of Rodriguez’s grown daughters stumbled upon the site, soon getting the man himself in touch with the worshipful public he’d never known existed.
He should have known: Royalties were paid from the records’ South African labels to the artist’s U.S. one. When the filmmakers interview Clarence Avant in Palm Springs, he grows belligerent and evasive at the suggestion that monies went astray. Just where they did go, however, is anyone’s guess.
Despite being yet another apparent casualty of the music industry – screwed out of his rightful renumerations – Rodriguez proves the picture of Zen composure upon discovering he’d been a ‘superstar’ for years. It’s his daughters and co-workers who register proper amazement as the film heads toward its moving climax.
– Dennis Harvey, Variety
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