Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary “Searching for Suger Man” is the best documentary I’ve seen so far this year. It’s a riveting tale of a 60’s/70’s singer-songwriter who failed to make it in the US, but unbeknownst to anyone involved with his career became one of South Africa’s superstars. With a micro budget, Bendjelloul has crafted the story of the decade. The unlikely tale is as much fun to watch as Errol Morris’s equally jaw-dropping “Tabloid.”
Latino singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez was discovered by two producers (Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey) playing with his back to the audience in a bar in Detroit.
(As part of the “Royaltones” Dennis Coffey played back up on Del Shannon sessions. As part of the legendary Funk Brothers he backed up The Temptations, The Supremes, Jackie Wilson. George Clinton’s Funkadelic and introduced the “Wah-Wah” guitar to Motown soul. The pair had two hits “Scorpio” (71) and “Taurus” (72) with their band “Dennis Coffey & The Detroit Guitar Band.”)
The hitmakers, who’d also worked with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, felt they’d discovered a Chicano Dylan. Signed to Sussex and A&R Records Rodriguez released two memorable albums, “Cold Fact” and “Coming to Reality”, Favorably received by savvy critics, the albums bombed and the labels dropped Rodriguez. It didn’t help that he had a Chicano name.
Rumors swirled about a public suicide. Versions included shooting himself in the head, setting himself on fire onstage, even a prison death. (At this point in the tale, I was thinking about under-appreciated Brit singer-songwriter Nick Drake who overdosed at 26, leaving behind three albums for Virgin records and a massive cult following that grows yearly.)
Meanwhile several bootleg albums from Australia or the US (depending on whose story you believe) surfaced in South Africa. Copied and passed around the songs help jump-start an Afrikaners protest song movement, as many local musicians of the day attest to.
Rodriguez, with his working class consciousness, described himself as a ‘Musico-politico”. Inner-city poetRodriguez’s ghetto inspired tunes resonated with the young white Afrikaners who wanted to fight the Apartheid police state. In South Africa, he was more popular than the Rolling Stones; a master on the level of the Beatles, Dylan, Cat Stevens. Local pressings, radio censorship and the rumors of his death fueled the fires. “Cold Fact”, which went platinum, became the anthem of the anti-Apartheid movement.
While traveling in South Africa, Bendjelloul met Stephen “Sugar” Segerman. ‘Sugar”, who owned a popular record store in Cape Town, Mabu Records, dazzled him with stories of his rediscovery of the MIA rock star.
Bendjelloul began making music documentaries for Swedish TV’s weekly culture show Kobra. (In fact one of his stories became the basis for “Men Who Stare At Goats” and another for “The Terminal”.) He worked unpaid for three years bringing his unbelievable tale to the screen.
DP Camilla Skagerström, a mistress of the Sony EX1 cam, shot Detroit and Cape Town with great depth and drama. Consider the first night cityscape of Detroit lit by a lightening storm. It starts the film out with a noiresque bang. Skagerström, and Bendjelloul decided to use Super 8 to achieve their gritty city shots and when funds ran short, resorted to the director’s Super 8 phone app. Beautiful view shots, almost panoramic in their detail, give the film an important feel. Moody animation sequences recall the downlow neighborhoods of 60’s Detroit where Sixto started. Bendjelloul’s tyro hand drawings also burnish the tale.
Steve Rowland, who produced the second album “Coming From Reality”, also weighs in, as does Clarence Avant (the “Godfather of Soul”) and founder of Essex Records and Rodriguez’s kids. One of my favorite talking heads, construction worker/musician Rick Emmerson fills in much of Rodriguez’s unlikely tale, from the perspective of friend and co-worker.
“Sugar” and journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom spent years tracking the phantom mythic Sixto and the mystery of the missing South African royalties. It’s best I let Malik Bendjelloul’s film finish the story.
The film introduces a missing master to a new generation of music lovers.
Sony Music is releasing the irresistible soundtrack album (available starting July 24th through Legacy Recordings, a division of SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT.) The vinyl version of the soundtrack will be released by Light In The Attic Records. A MUST SEE