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searching for sugar man

January 2, 2013

After driving back from the Oregon coast, where my girlfriend and I spent New Year’s Eve, we met up with some friends to see Searching For Sugar Man at the Laurelhurst Theater, a local second-run movie theater in Portland. Being fairly tired from the three-hour drive home, and not particularly excited by the preview I’d seen earlier, I went in with low expectations; I left feeling slightly homesick and with an unexpected appreciation for a relatively unknown artist from my hometown.

The film itself centres around the search by two South African fans to find out more about Rodriguez, who’s been completely forgotten about in the US but, unbeknownst to him, has a huge following in South Africa, where his music spoke to many white South Africans opposed to apartheid in the 70s and helped to inspire the music of a budding, white anti-Apartheid movement during those turbulent times.

Rodriguez put out a couple of albums in the early 70s after getting signed to Sussex Records — Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming from Reality in 1971 — but none of them sold and he was unceremoniously dropped from the label, going back into obscurity and his working-class roots in Detroit, working mostly in construction while also completing a BA in philosophy from Wayne State University. His life was so obscure, in fact, that most of his fans in South Africa thought he was dead, with multiple urban legends floating around about how he’d died, ranging everywhere from a grizzly on-stage suicide (due to self-immolation or a gunshot wound depending on who you’d ask) to a drug overdose.

Eventually, however, the two fans discover that he’s not only alive, but actually manage to get into contact with him via one of his daughters, and the film explores their search, Rodriguez’s musical impact on South Africa, his jump-started musical career, and his enduring mystique throughout it all, which persists in spite of his new-found fame and subsequent South African tour, where he’s treated like a rock ‘n’ roll star almost 30 years after the release of his last record and almost two decades since his last tour.

The film switches back and forth between Detroit, Michigan, and Cape Town, South Africa; and while I know relatively little about Cape Town, the scenes in Detroit brought back a flood of memories and feelings, and I found myself being drawn even more into the narrative, especially with each tiny little revelation about Rodriguez’s life, many of which reminded me of my own, including my time living and working in the city (I grew up in downtown Detroit; I was a heat treater for a couple of years, and have been a manual labourer for most of my working life; I got laid off from a ceramic tile manufacturer just before Christmas two years ago; etc.).

I don’t know how accurate the film’s portrayal of Rodriguez’s level of talent or his music’s influence on the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa are (I suspect they’re somewhat exaggerated), but I think it does a decent job of portraying the spirit of Detroiters (and by extension the beleaguered working class in general) personified by Rodriguez—specifically the quiet determination and modest dignity of working-class people who may have little materially to show for their years of hard work, but who are by no means soulless wretches living in a land of no hope despite the constant day-to-day struggles they face just to make ends meet.

While Searching For Sugar Man doesn’t sugarcoat life in the “troubled city” where Rodriguez was born, it doesn’t belittle or criticize it, either. Instead, it hints at the potential underlying everyone who calls it home, even if that potential goes unnoticed by the majority of the rest of the world. And while this particular “troubled city” happens to be Detroit, I think it can stand for any place where working-class people deal with the realities of working-class life and the surprising things you can find there.

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