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Films in Review: “Searching for Sugar Man”

Vivian Rothstein

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Searching for Sugar Man, the Oscar-winning documentary film by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, hits you in the heart. You walk out of the theater feeling the world can be redeemed — and that it is possible for a person to be recognized for their talents and contributions even after years of obscurity and seeming inconsequence. If it could happen to a musician called Rodriguez then, perhaps, it could happen to the hundreds of other equally talented and modest people in this world.

Sixto Rodriguez, so named because he was the sixth child born to his mother, was a handsome, lithe, enigmatic singer/songwriter in 1970s Detroit who released two albums of haunting, alienated songs and then seemingly sank into oblivion. Except one of his albums made it to Cape Town, South Africa and got passed hand to hand where its songs were picked up by the anti-apartheid music scene as anthems of a sort for a generation. In this case it seems a generation of mostly white, anti-racist youth.

Fast-forward to the present, when a few members of that generation, now in middle age, are anxious to find this mysterious songwriter and revive his music. The story of that quest forms the basis of Searching for Sugar Man and the reunion of talent with fan base is beautiful and touching.

The film opens our minds in a couple of important ways. We usually think of globalization as a profit-oriented phenomenon that takes the agency away from the ordinary person. But in this film it is regular people who find the music, spread it, search for its source and transform lives in the process. It suggests that all sorts of cultural and intellectual connections can be initiated across national boundaries for artistic, political and emotional reasons totally apart from the economic behemoths that normally drive global exchange.

And even more profoundly, the character of Rodriguez, someone who has lived on the edge of poverty all his life, working hard labor to support himself once his music seemly failed to get traction, projects a modest and humble persona that is almost saintlike in its lack of self-reverence. How often do we meet a person so comfortable with his inner life that he eschews opportunities for self-promotion? Tellingly, Rodriguez chose not to attend the Academy Awards ceremony to avoid detracting attention from the producers of the film.

We want to be like him. Balanced and calm. And celebrated now in his later years for the enormous talent he has, despite years of obscurity.

And I, at least, want to meet more people like Rodriguez when I go to the movies.

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