For the First Time: Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man” (2012)

Sixto Rodridguez walking down a street in Detroit wearing sunglasses, as depicted in Malik Bendjelloul's "Searching For Sugar Man".

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As an artist who has yet to be recognized for my achievements, and as someone who also knows other artists who have yet to be recognized for theirs, I have long adhered to the belief that quality rises in the end. To what end, you might wonder? Well, within me there is this idea of the ultimate. And with this, there is the notion that my most dedicated readers have yet to be born. Not only has this comforted me, but also it has contributed to my need to keep going. (If, for nothing else, I owe it to them—my future readers.) Furthermore, I have also battled the reductive belief that fame equals quality. Because as we have seen, it is not uncommon for great artists to go overlooked in the immediate, only to be discovered later by the future generations who will appreciate them. Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man, the 2012 documentary on the musician Sixto Rodriguez, demonstrates this.

So, you have never heard of the 1970s musician who refers to himself as Rodriguez? Neither had I, before watching this Oscar winning documentary. In his review, Roger Ebert offers the perfect introduction to this enigma of a person: “He was so good that without fame or a large fan base, he signed a two-album contract with Sussex and A&R Records. The first album, “Cold Fact,” got a rare four-star review from Billboard. Neither it nor the second one, “Coming From Reality,” sold well, the contract was dropped, and the story seemed to end there.’

Except the story didn’t end. Sixto Rodriguez, an American who spent his life in Detroit, was completely unknown within his own country but was a smash success in South Africa, as his lyrics seemed to speak to the citizens battling apartheid. And what lyrics they are! Firstly, I am happy to share that he has a Spotify channel, so you can hear them for yourself. Moreover, if I were to compare, he reminds me somewhat of a Bob Dylan vein mixed with Elliott Smith.

Take, for example, the opening from his song “Crucify Your Mind”:

Was it a huntsman or a player
That made you pay the cost
That now assumes relaxed positions
And prostitutes your loss?

The songs carry a true pathos that is deeply profound and poetic. (Pathos, profound, and poetic. These are the words of a true artist.) Just who is this Rodriguez?

As the years went, no one knew anything about him. Was he from New York? Or Amsterdam? His face shielded by a stroke of dark hair, rumors said that he committed suicide on stage. He set himself ablaze. Or maybe he shot himself. Except, none of this is true because Sixto Rodriguez is not only still alive (his Wikipedia page indicates that he is 80), but that he has lived the last 40 years in the same house in Detroit. Add to this that any earnings he made from his Cape Town sales went to his family and friends.

Now allow me to share the opening lyrics to his song “Sugar Man”:

Sugar Man
Won’t ya hurry
Coz I’m tired of these scenes
For a blue coin
Won’t ya bring back
All those colors to my dreams

Silver magic ships, you carry
Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane

Sugar man
Won’t ya hurry
Coz I’m tired of these scenes
For a blue coin
Won’t ya bring back
All those colours to my dreams

His songs often tell stories, and within, there is a yearning for something that is missing. But if he really is this good (and he is), why isn’t he more known? Well, what I gleaned from the film is that there wasn’t a very good marketing campaign on his behalf, and sometimes luck just doesn’t fall in someone’s favor. In fact, when asked how many of his albums sold in the US, the answer was something like ‘six’. Literally, s-i-x. And yet this idea of ‘failure’ has ultimately redirected into success. Ebert affectionately titled his review, ‘The kind of story we need to exist,’ and he is right. Except Rodriguez’s story is not the only one. There is also Vivian Maier, Hilma af Klint, Francesca Woodman, James Emanuel, Emily Dickinson, not to mention Van Gogh, Cezanne, and the most recently deceased, undiscovered talent and great poet, Bruce Ario.

I’d like to know why quality too often gets cast aside. Can anyone reading offer an answer? While I understand the idea behind marketing and sales and all that—humans are individual entities that are capable of marketing whatever they want. How much marketing did the 10-hour series on Dahmer get? I mean, would it still be as popular had it not been pushed into the limelight? I am a lover of classic music—especially of the 1970s era, and that I’d never heard of Rodriguez is telling. But hey, now I know. And now you know. Since then, there has been this Oscar winning documentary, as well as numerous mentions on YouTube, and elsewhere. In fact, his YouTube comments are littered with South Africans saying, ‘He was my 1980s! So much nostalgia.’ And yet here am I, hearing for the first time.

The world of online streaming is a remarkable thing. From this invention, I have uncovered so many neglected, overlooked artists. This is a good thing. Films fall into obscurity and then they are resurrected. Suddenly, that cheesy, 1970s Made for TV font featuring a film with Marilyn Hassett offers a sort of vintage nostalgia. Except for one thing—all great art is timeless. While I realize I have already referenced myself, I’d like to share the ending for my essay on Liz Browning’s Aurora Leigh:

It is fairly common for great art to go overlooked—at least initially. And all art should be examined independently of its creator. It is important to not imbue too much of the personal within the metaphorical, even though those connections do exist. We all do it—most everyone does, albeit the difference is to recognize where life ends and art begins. Some might claim that they—life and art—are one in the same, except they are not. Most of life flounces about unfettered, without any guide to fasten it into place. It takes an artful eye to illuminate the otherwise ordinary. This is why great art is revisited, regardless of the current mores. It is within excellence that the artful soul triumphs.

Most of us are capable of moving about without thinking, myself included. The legend that has become Rodriguez would not need to be were culture more curious. This documentary portrays a touching portrait of an artist and man, wherein we get word from his daughters relaying the fact that their father’s life was rich in all ways save the material. With such sentiments, I cannot help but be reminded of Bruce Ario who, after having suffered mental illness, went on to learn and grow into a great poet.

Searching for Sugar Man is a deeply moving film about a gifted artist who was also a kind father and a kind man. This is the sort of story that exists to inspire, to offer hope. Perhaps for this we might come to believe that his initial obscurity wasn’t such a bad thing, because true talent never stays there long.


Please visit his YouTube page for more information on Sixto Rodriguez.

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More from Jessica Schneider: From Inside The Visual Mind: On Mick Jackson’s “Temple Grandin” (2010), The Onset of Evil: Michael Haneke’s “The White Ribbon” (2009)Onward and Upward: Mike Leigh’s “Another Year” (2010)