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Byron Shire
May 7, 2021

Searching For Sugar Man

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Film review by John Campbell

If you’re long enough in the tooth to remember Rodriguez – and the screening I attended confirmed that in Byron such dinosaurs aren’t totally extinct – you’ll remember that he was a hippie cult figure who shot to near-fame in the early seventies with a couple of LPs in what used to be called the ‘underground’ music scene. Then he vanished as quickly as he had appeared.

His song Sugarman was exhumed for that awful Australian film Candy, but otherwise he was ancient history – until now.

None of us realised that Rodriguez was, and remained, a legend in of all places South Africa, where he’d been accorded iconic status as ‘the voice’ of the anti-Apartheid movement.

The very best docos are those that have a mystery to solve, that follow a path that leads its participants to an unknown destination. This does just that, as Stephen Segerman and Craig Strydom set out to learn what became of their hero.

Rumours had it that Rodriguez either self-immolated or blew his brains out on stage, but nothing was verifiable. The two devotees ultimately tracked their man down and lured him to Capetown and Jo’burg, where the singer was greeted ecstatically at sell-out concerts (by what appeared to be exclusively white audiences).

Recognition is an underrated laurel, or, as is more poetically observed here, ‘home is acceptance’. The strength of this fascinating movie is in the odd slice of cultural history that it illuminates, the passion and perseverance shown by the searchers and the quiet dignity of Rodriguez when, after the ‘Doctor Livingstone?’ moment, he is thrust into a limelight that had eluded him decades earlier.

The man himself comes across as a sweet and gentle recluse, stooped but cheery and still living in the tumbledown house that he has lived in in blue-collar Detroit for the past forty years.

I could not shake off a peculiar feeling of guilt for not having been a fan of his albums, but nor could I begrudge the love and affection that was showered on him.


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