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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Searching for Sugar Man





Sweden: Malik Bendjelloul, 2012 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

One of my favorite movies of the past year is a documentary by a new young Swedish filmmaker about a little-known (at least here) American musician of the ’70s. It‘s called Searching for Sugar Man — and it’s a rock ’n roll chronicle of a great singer/guitarist/songwriter about whom you’ve probably never heard, named Rodriguez.

Well, maybe that’s not quite true. The movie has been out a while, so maybe some of you have heard about Rodriguez (whose first name is Sixto) — at least  if you’ve read about the movie, or seen it, or if you come from South Africa. (The film was also a critical/audience hit and a prizewinner at Sundance). But, until the picture came out here, Rodriguez was mostly a man forgotten in his own country, a singer who had left the stage, it seemed, permanently.

Back in the early ’70s, he recorded two albums of his own songs — 1970’s “Cold Fact” and 1971’s “Coming From Reality,” both of which had memorable music and strong guitar-playing by Rodriguez, and sharp, deeply poetic, socially hip lyrics (in the Bob Dylan mode) and both of which received very favorable reviews from critics of the ‘70s. But they both flopped commercially, Rodriguez lost his recording contract (with Sussex) and his career seemed to vanish, along with Rodriguez  himself.


Except in South Africa, where bootlegs of Rodriguez’s albums began to circulate among the country‘s youthful music-lovers, where the records were eventually released by local entrepreneurs (who didn’t know where Rodriguez was either), and where the socially conscious balladeer became a superstar as big as Elvis or the Beatles, and as admired as them, or Dylan or Springsteen — and, for the youth of the country (especially the white youth), also a pop cultural symbol of resistance to racism and apartheid.

Rodriguez’s song “I Wonder” became an  anthem of the anti-apartheid generation, much as Dylan‘s “Blowin‘ in the Wind“ had been an American anthem of the anti-war movement , In South Africa, his 1970 album “Cold Fact” was one of the three most popular of the era.  (The others were “Abbey Road” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”) Without a huge hype machine, or  a publicity apparatus of any kind, with only a few pictures of the star himself circulating (accenting his charismatic Latino looks, long black hair, dark glasses, and air of gravity) he nevertheless conquered his  audience, at least in South Africa. And, in one of the most curious twists of a tale full of them, he never knew of these triumphs while they were happening.

In the void of actual information, unsubstantiated stories began to circulate about the singer and his mysterious disappearance, including urban legends that he had committed suicide on stage after his last concert, by gunshot or by setting himself on fire. But what was the truth, the cold facts? Rodriguez’s loyal fans and aficionados began increasingly to wonder, including the South African critic/music man who wrote the notes for the 1990’s release of “Coming from Reality” Stephen “Sugar Man” Segerman (his nickname comes from Rodriguez’s song “Sugar Man”) and who called in the notes for information about the pop idol’s death or fate.

Another writer, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, began to scour the Internet, looking for clues and witnesses. Finally he found out what happened, and where Rodriquez had gone.  And Strydom and later, filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul found out what kind of person had written and sung and played those songs — and never apparently profited from them, while they were helping change a country half a world away.

Well, you may have heard or read the rest of the story by now. It’s a pretty amazing one. But, on the off-chance you haven’t heard it — and because I don’t want to stick a big fate Spoiler Alert in the middle of this review — I‘m going to stop the synopsis here.  Searching for Sugar Man is partly a fascinating mystery-detective story, and it’s far more enjoyable if some mystery remains.

I will say that I loved the movie, that it deserves all the praise it has received, and that, if you care about rock ‘n’ roll, and art, and politics, and the plight of poor people in our rich country, and if you’re curious about the mysteries of commerce and hype (or non-hype) in the United States if America (and the rest of the world), you  must see this movie. I watched it again the other night and fell in love with it all over again. What’s more amazing: I just talked to a friend who also loves the movie, and he told me he was sitting in Starbucks last morning when suddenly he heard….Well, I won’t tell you. But after you see the movie, and you should, you’ll be able to guess. Long live rock. And folk rock. And the anti-Apartheid youth of South Africa. And Motor City. And Rodriguez. And Searching for Sugar Man. Do you want to know what really happened half a world away? See the show.


No Special Features (on a release that cries out for them: especially more music).

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon