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'Searching For Sugar Man' Makes Ricki C. Cry

It’s not often that a rock & roll movie leaves me crying like a 12-year old girl at the end, but Searching For Sugar Man accomplished that task.

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This film (which, by the way, won this year’s Oscar for Best Documentary, quite rightly I must add) documents the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit singer/songwriter who recorded two albums for a small American label in 1970 and 1971. Promotion on the records was minimal, the albums sold in the hundreds, Rodriguez never got to tour and soon returned to the twilight obscurity in which so many musicians have found themselves lingering over the many years of the rock & roll era.

However, in a weird twist of fate, Rodriguez’s first album – Cold Fact – found its way to South Africa courtesy of an American tourist and the disc became a touchstone and flashpoint of the nascent apartheid movement. As detailed in the movie, Rodriguez went on to sell half a million records in a nation of 40 million people. That’s one record for every 80 man, woman and children. (To put that in perspective, there were 200 million people in America in the 1970’s, and Fleetwood Mac sold “only” 8 million copies of Rumours.) Legends grew up in South Africa surrounding Rodriguez — tales of onstage suicide by self-immolation or gunshot to the head in front of a disinterested & blasé audience, to name just two — and Cold Fact just kept selling.       

More than just the story of Rodriguez though — which would have been compelling enough to be great — the film Searching For Sugar Man is just so gorgeously SHOT. The filmmakers play off the relative glamor of the seaside & beautiful Cape Town, South Africa with the urban squalor that was (and is) Detroit. But somehow director Majik Bendjelloul accomplishes the seemingly impossible task of making even the eternally snowy Detroit LOOK romantic.  (And believe me, I’ve been going to Detroit to see bands or roadie for bands since 1971; it is in no way, shape or form romantic.)

I genuinely regret not going to see the movie when it played at the Drexel for two weeks this past January, but it fell in the midst of my self-imposed winter hibernation.  As much as I enjoyed it sitting in my living room, I bet it looked great up on the big screen. (Maybe Colin and Brian Phillips can bring it back as part of the Gateway Reelin’ & Rockin’ movie series. Hint, hint.)

Anyway, I don’t wanna spoil the movie for you (as I have for so many of my friends as I rave and/or blather on about it) but when we finally meet Sixto Rodriguez in the film the guy just has so much soul and humanity pouring out of him that it not only brought tears to my eyes, it brought on the full blown crying jag mentioned in sentence one of this story.  This is a man who was essentially cheated out of his music career — who sold hundreds of thousands of records in a faraway land and never saw a penny from it, who worked hard-labor construction and demolition jobs for decades when he should have been playing his guitar in front of adoring fans, who still lives in the same rundown Detroit home he’s resided in for 40 years — and there is not one ounce of bitterness or regret in his voice or being.  This man, Rodriguez, is a true American hero to me.

You’ve gotta rent this movie.

                                                     Ricki C. 3/14/2013         

(ps. Rodriguez declined to attend the Oscar ceremony in Los Angeles at which Searching For Sugar Man ultimately won for Best Documentary because he “didn’t want to take away the spotlight” from the filmmakers. Without him the filmmakers HAD no movie, but he did not want to take any of the recognition. If this was me or Colin we’d have been snatching that Oscar out of the director’s hands and making a rambling speech of our own until they dragged us off the stage.)