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Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul (2012)

Sugar-ManA unique story in some ways, all too familiar in others. Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, a working-class kid born 1942 in Detroit to Mexican immigrant parents, puts out a couple of solid folk-rock records in the late 60’s and early 70’s. They don’t sell, his label drops him, and he lives a life of menial labor and community activism in Detroit for decades. Unbeknownst to him, though, he’s hugely famous in South Africa, where his music is as familiar and pop-canonical as that of Simon and Garfunkel and Cat Stevens, though little is known about him personally. The movie traces the efforts of a few die-hard South African fans to find Rodriguez. Eventually, once he’s “discovered,” he tours South Africa, where he is much loved. The question of where all the money went from the hundreds of thousands of records sold in South Africa while Rodriguez scraped by in Detroit is lightly pricked but not dug into, because the filmmakers want this to be a story about Rodriguez’s mystical, totemic purity, rather than (yet another) story about a rube who got fucked over by the record industry.

However, that is the story, however over-familiar or mean, and I wish the filmmakers had acknowledged that. Rodriguez wrote smart, incisive songs about systemic oppression; kids in South Africa were inspired by his ideas; record company executives took the kids’ money; Rodriguez made nothing. That’s not a story about a guy too cool to care about money. That’s the story of a guy who got fucked over. Detroit makes and the world takes! The movie seemed to want me to feel warm and fuzzy about this story but I felt angry. Maybe I listened to Rodriguez’s lyrics more closely than the filmmakers did.

3 Comments

  1. JR Brouwer

    After seeing the film, I bought both albums on Amazon. If I made copies for you, would we be ripping off Rodriguez or the record companies?

  2. This guy is great! I’m so glad to have come across your post today. After reading it I spent the last hour finding his music and reading about his life. My favourite song is cause. It reveals he’s more than a musician, he’s a humble poet too.
    For the benefit of your sense of justice I thought you might like to know Rodriguez was interested in recovering his loyalties so there may be some justice for him yet.

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