He Wasn't Just Doing Your Average Carpentry
Cause you’ve been down on me for too long
And for too long I just put you on.
Now I’m tired of lying and I’m sick of trying.
Cause I’m losing who I really am.
And I’m not choosing to be like them.
—Rodriguez, “I’ll Slip Away”
The club was in a bad part of Detroit, remembers Dennis Coffey. And the night was eerie, too: you could see the mist in the air, “coming in like out of a Sherlock Holmes movie.” Still, Coffey and his partner Mike Theodore had heard this kid was good, and so they went to see Sixto Rodriguez sing. “He had a strange voice,” remembers Theodore. What’s more, “You see this guy with his back to you. It was an ethereal scene, it forced you to listen to the lyrics, because you couldn’t see his face.”
So begins Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary that takes up its title rather literally. As Coffey and Theodore look back on the artist they “discovered” and the album he recorded with them for Sussex Records, 1970’s Cold Fact, neither man has much to say about the “inner city poet” Rodriguez, as their shoulda-been star was called, beyond noting the anomaly he presented that night. The film augments the mystery, including brief bits of interviews with people who knew him as a local laborer as well as a bar patron. If the producers compare his sound—and his resistance to categorization—to Bob Dylan, the other guys, standing in snowy streets or framed by shelves of shiny bottles, remember only vaguely what Rodriguez was like. “He was this wandering spirit around the city,” bartender Dan DiMaggio recalls. “I heard he did a little flooring and construction work.” He looked like “a kind of homeless person, going from shelter to shelter.”
Whether or not these guesses were true, Searching for Sugar Man offers up elusive and allusive images: old shadowy snapshots, some album covert art, lyrics written on a window, and then an animated Rodriguez walking against the urban wind, all deliberately elusive pictures that suggest the legendary element in Rodriguez’s story—that he killed himself, on stage with a gun or maybe setting himself on fire—might be true. No one can say for sure. What they can say, and do repeatedly here, is that he had a calling and a gift. Theodore muses that Detroit was his “natural habitat”, that he was moved to tell stories about street, about drugs and violence and loss. Coffey and Theodore expected great things for Cold Fact, but, well, they suggest now, maybe the circumstances weren’t “right”, maybe he was “too political.” The record didn’t sell. Rodriguez tried again, with 1971’s Coming from Reality, also on Sussex. And when that second album failed too, he disappeared.
But not really. Not in South Africa. And not in Zimbabwe, Australia, and New Zealand, where bootleg copies of Rodriguez’s records sold. They sold a lot, going platinum in South Africa, and five times platinum in Australia. In South Africa, where Searching for Sugar Man comes to focus, his songs became anthems for young white activists, calls to resist Apartheid, and only became more popular when the government banned them. (A South African archivist shows how the records were scratched to make sure that certain tracks could not played on the radio.) “For many of us in South Africa,” remembers Willem Möller, of the band Big Sky, “he was the soundtrack to our lives.”
This soundtrack persisted over decades, says Stephen Segerman, collector of all things Rodriguez. Segerman and filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul work together for years on the search, along with music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom. As they try to decipher clues in Rodriguez’s lyrics and sort through contracts for record sales payments, they come by different directions back to Detroit. Here they find Sussex founder Clarence Avant, with whom Bendjelloul shares a decidedly strange interview, wherein Avant seems disinclined to say that he has some idea of where the money was going, and eventually a little exasperated.
The interview ends without resolution over facts, only suggestions that they may exist, somewhere. The rest of Searching for Sugar Man is evasive in other ways. While it does provide something like a story of uplift, of passion and art lost and found, it doesn’t dig too deeply into any particular storyline or details. As the film makes its way toward Rodriguez, it uncovers still more stories, in the memories of fans and three of his daughters. As Eva, Sandra, and Regan begin to speak, you might wonder how they’ve come so late in the film, where they’ve been while these stories of their dad’s suicide have circulated. The girls help paint a portrait of an artist committed to his ideals, to the value of manual labor and local connections. If the film doesn’t show much of that man’s life—how he came to know the hardships he details in his songs, how he lived during all those years when people said he was dead, how he came to have a first and then a second wife, neither of whom appears here.
And in this, you’re more aligned with Segerman, far away in Cape Town, than with the daughters, now grown-up, in Detroit. This sense of dislocation, this sense that you’ve lost time or missed part of the story, may be the documentary’s most lasting and perplexing effect. And in this, it challenges those old-fashioned notions about documentaries, that they might investigate or uncover a truth. The idea here, instead, is that truth remains tenuous, and Rodriguez a shadowy figure, his back turned to the camera. Even when he’s found, Rodriguez remains a mystery.