Thanks for Keeping Me Alive

27 Aug

In the late 1960s, a singer-songwriter named Rodgriguez was developing a following in Detroit.

Described as an “inner-city poet” and a “wandering spirit,” and hailed as a peer of Bob Dylan, Rodriguez released his debut album, the critically acclaimed Cold Fact, in 1970. A year later, he released his follow-up, Coming from Reality.

But despite the accolades, very few copies of the two albums were sold, and Rodriguez was soon dropped by the record label.

That’s just one of the confounding things we learn in the excellent new documentary Searching for Sugar Man.

And then it gets stranger: Just as Rodriguez was settling in to a life outside the music world in Detroit, his recordings were being discovered and embraced in South Africa, of all places. Whereas his albums sold “six copies” in the U.S., according to the head of his record label, in South Africa, they went Gold multiple times over, selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

To many in South Africa, Cold Fact was as essential an album to own as the Beatles’ Abbey Road and Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water. While fans knew very little about the man himself, Rodriguez was more popular than Elvis. His music is credited with no less than helping to jump-start the anti-Apartheid movement.

Then, multiple stories started to spread about Rodriguez’s bizarre death, which only added more mystique to his legend.

And all that time, he had no clue about any of this. How is that possible?

The film details how two dogged fans in South Africa decided in the late 1990s to find out just what happened to Rodriguez (the title refers to one of his more well known songs), and how when they found the singer very much alive, they shared with him the news that his work was loved more than he ever could have imagined.

That makes Searching for Sugar Man not just a true story that’s more interesting than some works of fiction, and not just a film about a musician, but a universal tale about a man who finally gets the recognition of his work that he always deserved. Who can’t identify with that?

Director Malik Bendjelloul skillfully blends archival photographs, talking-head interviews, beautiful cinematography, and cool animation, plus a healthy amount of Rodriguez’s own music, to tell this fascinating and curious story. (Bendjelloul also designed the impressive opening credits sequence.) It gets increasingly hard to fathom the discrepancy between the love people in South Africa have for Rodriguez and his music, and the fact that people in the U.S. have largely never heard of him.

But it’s all true.

Critical to the film’s success is the man at the center of the mystery. Can he possibly be as cool and as respectable as the people who talk about him make him out to be? Yes — and then some.

When we meet the present-day Rodriguez, we see that he’s a soft-spoken man who is completely unaffected by the path his life took and the money he has, had, or never saw. You can’t help but appreciate what happens to him so long after he had walked away from his music career. The filmmaker and all involved clearly have a lot of love and affection for Rodriguez, and after watching Searching for Sugar Man, you will too.

There are some details missing. For example, we meet the singer’s three daughters, but never their mother. And Bendjelloul never really pursues the topic of why exactly the albums didn’t sell in the U.S. Were they never promoted at all? How is it possible for such great music to have been so completely rejected?

Those are rather significant omissions. But given that what is there is so compelling that it’s damned near impossible to resist, I’m willing to give the filmmaker a bit of leeway for overlooking these aspects of the story.

Searching for Sugar Man, like the man it’s about, hasn’t gotten a whole lot of attention. That’s why, truth be told, I couldn’t wait for this movie to be over. Not because I wasn’t enjoying it — far from it. Rather, because halfway through, I was enjoying it so much that I couldn’t wait to leave the theater to tell people that they have to go see it.

Quite simply, Searching for Sugar Man is one of my favorite movies of 2012. The soundtrack is an album that will get plenty of repeat play from me — particularly songs like “I Wonder” and “Crucify Your Mind.” And Rodriguez is an artist I will look out for when he comes to town on a tour later this year.

I’m giving the film a B+, and I’m hoping you’ll do yourself a favor and check it out. If you need a little more convincing, here’s the trailer:

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6 Responses to “Thanks for Keeping Me Alive”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 25 Things I Learned This Summer « Martin's Musings - August 31, 2012

    […] Rodriguez’s music is better discovered late than never at […]

  2. 33 Songs That Defined My 2012 « Martin's Musings - December 17, 2012

    […] 12. Rodriguez – “Crucify Your Mind” This song came out in 1970, and bombed. It achieved national attention this year thanks to the excellent documentary Searching for Sugar Man. […]

  3. 2012 Was a Masterful Year for the Movies « Martin's Musings - December 21, 2012

    […] Searching for Sugar Man This film is not just a true story that’s more interesting than some works of fiction, and not […]

  4. Argo Get Yourself Some Oscars | Martin's Musings - February 22, 2013

    […] win: Searching for Sugar Man Should win: Searching for Sugar Man Admittedly, I’ve only seen one movie in this category. But I […]

  5. You’re Supposed to Be Singing | Martin's Musings - June 28, 2013

    […] same Christmas song is a beloved holiday tradition. Like the story of Rodriguez in last year’s Searching for Sugar Man also showed, delayed recognition can be really […]

  6. 20 Feet from Stardom: Movie Review | Popblerd!! - June 29, 2013

    […] same Christmas song is a beloved holiday tradition. Like the story of Rodriguez in last year’s Searching for Sugar Man also showed, delayed recognition can be really […]

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