Saturday, November 3, 2012

Searching for Sugar Man (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
Searching for Sugar Man

"Searching for Sugar Man" tells the story of the cult folk singer Rodriguez, who was cloaked in a shadow almost as thick as The Batman. Until this rich and thoughtful documentary, Rodriguez was virtually unknown in America and still is, wrapped in obscurity like a long black greatcoat. This obscurity or double life that he now has, though, insulates him from the insanity of fame. A fame that has oddly eluded Rodriguez but one that he nonetheless deserves.

When the documentary begins we are on a South African road as mysterious as Jim Morrison's Paris. A comical man by the name of Stephen Segerman, whose nickname is "Sugar" tells how he had been captivated by the enigma of Rodriguez since he was a young man and started a record store. It was reported that the iconoclastic artist, not being able to achieve a living through music in the U.S., committed suicide in the late 70s.

A bootleg copy of Rodriguez's debut album "Cold Fact" somehow appeared in South Africa, but the exact story is unclear.

No matter. A myth was born as fantastical and tall as the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce.

No one knows why the outspoken and wild-rose voice of Sixto Rodriguez didn't make the Big Time. His poetic and saffron-baked lyrics are as compelling as anything by Dylan. Whereas Dylan sang about the volatile world at large during the 60's, Rodriguez spoke about the hermetic world of a downbeat Detroit that he knew well. But his lyrics were no less cosmic or important than the famous heir of Woody Guthrie known once as Zimmerman. My guess is that the Pop media of the 60s, focused in on Dylan, while Rodriguez was left behind. After two records that received high critical praise, despite dismal sales, the poet took refuge in social activism and worked in construction, specifically demolition. Rodriguez was not afraid to get his hands dirty, despite arriving in a tie and dark sunglasses ready for immersion in dust and dirt. And he raised three daughters. All the while having no idea that he was a Superstar in Johannesburg on par with Elvis.

"Searching for Sugar Man" never fails to entertain and transfix with vivid and swirling animations that depict Rodriguez in his dark trench coat and 'Invisible Man' sunglasses. Another highlight is an interview with Sussex Records founder Clarence Avant who has boundless admiration for the artist and is moved to tears, yet he adamantly disputes the cultural impact of his recordings. It's almost as if a supernatural barrier was stopping Rodriguez from achieving American success. Despite hordes of veneration akin to sainthood in South Africa, The poet known as Rodriguez still lives in his modest Detroit home in near-obscurity as he has for 40 years.

Rodriguez remains a humble pilgrim. His blue collar friends do not think he is a rock musician at all. Moreover, they think pictures of the huge crowds in South Africa were simulated by Photoshop.
Rodriguez accepts his American anonymity with a strange mixture of glee and passivity. And we get the feeling that he celebrates hard work and educational exploration as much as music. Demolition in construction, proves as vital as a pair of percussive drums in assisting the tread of humankind.

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