September 10, 2015

The search for Sugar Man

Searching for Sugar Man is the story of two South Africans’ journey to track down their musical hero, Sixto Rodriguez (known as ‘Sugar Man’) in the late 1990s. Sugar Man’s albums had failed to sell in his native USA, but unbeknownst to him, he’d become a huge cult hit in South Africa, where he was also rumoured to be dead.  

The documentary of Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom’s search for their musical hero went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and the BAFTA Award for Best Documentary. Read an extract from the true story behind this ground breaking documentary, written by the fans who tracked him down.

It is the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival. The date is 19 January 2012, which will turn out to be the first in a string of highly significant dates for this rogue-style documentary… So many trajectories have intersected in the making of this film and the story behind it, and will continue to do so. No one knows it yet, but although it feels like the end, this night is only the beginning of an extraordinary journey that will finally bring recognition to a brilliant but elusive musician, forty years after the fact.

There is a commotion downstairs. Rodriguez has finally arrived. He makes his way up to the second floor. At his side are his girlfriend Bonnie and two of his  daughters, Sandra and Regan. All three daughters feature in the documentary, although Eva has not made it to Sundance. (Notably absent from the eighty-six-minute film, critics would later point out, is the small bevy of ex-wives and ex-girlfriends who have accompanied Rodriguez on his life’s journey.) Tonight’s trip from the airport to the hotel, and from the hotel to the restaurant, has gone the way it always has: undetected. Imposing in leather and sporting a Ry Cooder hat and Roy Orbison prescription sunglasses, Rodriguez looks like a rock star one should recognise, someone whose records one should have. Unbeknown to him, he will not be going around undetected for much longer, especially not after tonight.

‘Ah,’ says Malik, leaping up from his chair, ‘the star of the show is here.’ But this statement is only partially true. The other star of the show, albeit from behind the camera, is none other than Malik himself. The waitress comes over and rushed orders are taken. They are already verging on being late for their own premiere. Strydom and Segerman take it all in. There’s something surreal about the moment. Malik, an idiosyncratic eater at the best of times, is too nervous to touch his food. Instead, he walks around the room singling out each person, thanking them for the respective roles they have played in this impossible story. But there’s no time for accolades. Chinn and Battsek usher everyone out.

Snow swirls into eyes and mouths as they slip-slide to the various minivans and taxis that wait to take them to their destination. A winter wonderland sweeps past. A marquee announces the film that will be opening the World Cinema Documentary Competition of the twenty-seven-year-old Sundance Festival. Three other films opened in their respective categories earlier in the day, Hello I Must Be Going in the US Dramatic Competition, Wish You Were Here in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition and The Queen of Versailles in the US Documentary Competition. When they arrive at the theatre, each member of the Sugar Man team is handed a Sundance Film Festival lanyard and pass badge, giving them unhindered access to red-carpet events and other functions not available to the general public. Just to see the words Searching for Sugar Man and the ‘official’ demarcation adds to the gravitas of the moment.

A capacity audience files in slowly. The Sugar Man team take their seats, barely able to contain themselves. There is no reason on earth why this documentary should resonate with US audiences, and they know it. By rights it should fade like the career of the musician on which it is based. How could anyone expect otherwise? For starters, no one in America, let alone tonight’s audience, is expected to know the music. And the soundtrack of a biopic, especially if it is about a musician, is half the film. And why should anyone have heard the music? In the sarcastic words of Clarence Avant, the Sussex label head and impresario responsible for signing Rodriguez to Sussex Records in 1969 who is controversially featured in the documentary, only six copies of the album ever sold: ‘My wife bought one, I bought one, and maybe my daughter bought one.’

The theatre goes black. Life blinks.

Sugar ManSugar Man: The Life, Death and Resurrection of Sixto Rodriguez by Craig Bartholomew Strydom and Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman (Bantam Press) is out now. 

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