When watching the enthralling and compelling documentary film Searching For Sugar Man – which tells the tale of two South Africans setting forth to track hold their musical hero – the mysterious folk musician Rodriguez I couldn’t deny the nagging familiarity of the (excellent) soundtrack – made up entirely of songs by the musician. But how could it be? How could I know these folk songs of the urban down-trodden by an artist who was, if the film was to be taken completely on face value, only recognized in South Africa? I mean, sure, my family stopped off in South Africa for, literally, one day while we were first immigrating to New Zealand on board the Greek ship Britanis – I’ll always remember it because I, as a four year old, spewed up a milkshake that my sister had given me in a cafe. In retro-spect and creative re-imagining of personal history, I like to think that my vomiting was my small, but messy, anti-apartheid protest. Also, I think the milk was off. But I am damned sure Rodriguez wasn’t playing on the cafe’s radio that afternoon.
To be fair, Rodriguez did enjoy a massive following in South Africa in the seventies; the country cut off socially through international sanctions – their cultural isolation adding to the folk-lore surrounding the apparent disappearance of the folk artist. The film touches upon a feeling in South Africa at that time, where the more progressive (read, not racist) population felt retrained in their expressions of their national injustice, living, themselves, in fear of the ruling party – and for those people, songs like “I Wonder” and “The Establishment Blues” soundtracked the struggle against apartheid as various talking heads in the film attest.
But, the film ignores that, while they bombed commercially in the USA, despite glowing critical acclaim, Rodriguez’s albums, Cold Fact (1970) and Coming Form Reality (1971) and he was dropped from his US label. An Australian record label, Blue Goose Music, bought the rights to his back catalogue in the mid 70s and released the two albums and a compilation album At His Best (featuring unreleased recordings from 1976 “Can’t Get Away”, “I’ll Slip Away” (a re-recording of his first single), and “Street Boy”). Unbeknownst to Rodriguez, it went platinum in South Africa, where he achieved cult status.
The film centres on the film-makers desire to track down this folk-hero, but also, perhaps, in direct contrast to the ethos of the artist seems to pull focus a little too much on the ‘lost income’ that Rodriguez never got – culminating, rather uncomfortably on a rather confrontational interview with the US Label boss who, it seems becomes quite defensive. And it’s here that the film-makers naivety really let’s him and the film down. I also confess to some further discomfort around the total omission of the artist’s success in Australia and New Zealand, instead depicting that he was only ever known in South Africa and that the film-maker discovered Rodriguez in Detroit working manual labour having and brought him to South Africa to finally play his songs to his fans. Again omitting that Rodrigues toured Australia twice in 1979 and 1981, the latter with Midnight Oil.
But, that all said, let’s not let some actual facts spoil a good story, even if the story is supposed to be a documentary. And, to give the film-maker the benefit of any doubts, he goes about depicting his truth with zeal and what seems to be a genuine affection for his subject-matter. The result is a charming, heart warming journey and I recommend seeing the film – it’s highly enjoyable in the moment and, despite success here in the seventies (to which i attribute my recollection of the song and voice) it’s encouraged me to properly discover Rodriguez’s music which is, truly, fantastic and it’s almost criminal that he’s not in the same sentence as Bob Dylan in musical households around the world. – review by Andrew Tidball
Searching For Sugar Man is playing at the NZ Film Festival – check their website to find dates.