I have to say this movie is amazing! It is a documentary about an American musician who inspired a generation in South Africa to fight apartheid and was more popular there than The Rolling Stones, and yet we in the US never heard of him. His name is Rodriguez and he recorded two albums in the early 70s before fading into obscurity. But by chance his music made its way to South Africa, and he became a Rock Star. His albums went platinum there and stories of his tragic death were a part of their music history.
The sad legend was that he sang his last concert and killed himself onstage — whether his method was by a gun to the head, or dousing with gasoline and setting himself on fire was up for debate — but what made him hugely popular there was that during the repressive Apartheid regime, when the young were not able to speak truth to power, here was this singer talking about sex and drugs and (most threatening to the Botha government) fighting the establishment. His song “Establishment Blues” was physically scratched out of every album before it could be sold, but that just made bootlegs more popular. Rodriguez was their Dylan, their Phil Ochs.
Then in the early 90s, both of his albums were released as CDs in South Africa, and in writing the liner notes, one of his biggest fans realizes that no one really knows anything about this man — where he was from, how he died — and so he starts digging. And what he turns up is what makes this movie so engaging and inspiring.
Rodriguez is not dead. He’s living in Detroit unaware that he ever made it big anywhere. And as we meet him and learn who he is, you cannot help but be inspired by his story and his way of looking at the world and his place in it. On some of his songs he uses the name Jesus Rodriguez and I swear this man has the presence of Jesus or maybe Buddha. He is definitely a poet and a philosopher down to his toes. Whether you like his music or not (I do, some of it), I cannot imagine anyone not being moved by this story and this man. Searching for Sugar Man is very well made, with some great graphic flourishes here and there, but the heart of it is this shy man who we see at the beginning singing onstage with his back to the crowd.
No one can say why he did not get his due at the time. All the producers and recording executives who knew him back in the day say he was up there with the best of the best, and yet as Rodriguez acknowledges, “It’s the music business…” This is a movie for everyone. If it doesn’t touch you, you have no heart! And if you don’t download a song or two when you get home, I would be surprised.