Malik Benjelloul’s remarkable Oscar-winning hunt for Sixto Rodriquez is a sweet and careful rekindling of an unknown fame for a hotly touted and now disappeared 1970s songwriter but it’s also a highlighter for the artistic and social struggles of South Africa. Record store owner Stephen Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, baffled by the obscurity of the man who produced two soulful records at the beginning of that decade, Cold fact and Back from Reality, sweep the rumors of his death under the rug and begin their hunt, leading the to the cold mean streets of Detroit, USA. Baffled still by his total anonymity in his home country they set about planning a touching revival in Africa for a man who is oddly more poplar than Elvis Presley.
Benjelloul met the pair in 1998 and was immediately taken by their hunt and, as a fan of the records himself, released they could be on to something, despite staring on a faint trail. The film makers present Rodriquez’ fame with such honesty that it’s almost impossible to work out why the singers career stalled everywhere but in South Africa. His attacks on the America of the 60′s against the government, twisted with a Dylanesque lyrical style infatuated the youth there who were struggling with apartheid oppression. Bootlegs were copied and copied and copied, his second record outsold The Beatles Abby Road, radio stations scratched out songs on the vinyls to make sure they could never be played about it was too late and the man was an instat superstar 8,000 miles from home.
The hit and miss aspect of celebrity and super stardom, the industry mantra of “being in the right place at the right time”, are prime themes in Searching for Sugarman; Record labels are brushed away subtly as thieving crooks and artists are cash cows often, especially in Rodriquez’s case, whether they know it or not. But of course the feel-good story of a realisation of an artist who has actually gotten his voice heard at an important time and in an important place is the real hook in the film. It’s a fine tale of waiting for an audience to find you, in this case, literally.
Oddly, beating out the heavy hitters 5 Broken Cameras, The Invisible War, How to Survive a Plague, and The Gatekeepers in this years Oscars as an underdog in almost every way, the film has turned itself in to a bit of a remarkable legend too. Finely told and often wonderfully shot, weaving archive with Sixto’s evocative music, Searching for Sugarman is a must see for music fans, for people with even a passing interest in the music industry or anyone who has made themselves horse by recommending an unknown band day after day after day after day.