Searching For Sugar Man review- Rodriguez

I went down memory lane last night. I did this alone, a state within I feel quite comfortable.

I haven’t been inside Edmonton’s Princess Theatre in twenty-five years, not since I left the city that Mike McDonald built. From 1980 to ’83, I went to the Princess, the south-side repertory theatre that sits as a sentinel on Whyte Avenue, regularly and exclusively for rock n roll movies: Tommy, Cha Cha, Rock and Roll High School, and about fifteen showings of The Kids Are Alright. In those pre-web, pre-VHS days, going to the theatre in the city was the only way to see the movies that I read about it Creem and Trouser Press, and the Princess the only place in the area that showed them. During my university days, I broadened the spectrum of my viewing and the Princess became a favourite place to watch a flick.

Appropriate that my first journey back to the Princess in a quarter century was to see a rock and roll movie. Now relegated to a small basement theatre rather than the grand old dame upstairs, I attended a screening of Searching for Sugar Man with fewer than thirty other discriminating viewers. Funny thing is, I think I may have been wearing the same jacket last time I was in the building.

Flitting from a South African coastal highway where the myth of Rodriguez’s fiery death unfolds over the strains of “Sugar Man” to the streets of late 60s-early 70s Detroit and the story of one observer’s remembrance of seeing Rodriguez for the first time- a tale that rivals Springsteen’s first introduction to the Big Man- viewers are swept into a documentary that captures a rare magic for more than 80 minutes: we may know how the story is going to unfold, but few could anticipate the impact of the story’s triumphant if understated climax.

Searching for Sugar Man is the story not only of Sixto Rodriguez, the songwriter most of us never heard of until Light in the Attic reissued his debut album a couple years ago: the movie retraces the efforts of those who set out in the late 90s to uncover the truth of the guitarist and songwriter’s tragic death. They discover much more, including the soul of a humble, quiet star- if only in South Africa.

Some of the footage utilized is unrelated to Rodriguez and serves to illustrate the Cape Town of 1971 (and elsewhere, Detroit) that awakened to his sounds. Some of the vignettes shared are pretty heavy from a cultural standpoint- one participant claims that in every middle-class (white) South African home you could find Abbey Road, Bridge Over Troubled Water and Cold Fact. The film places the album in context within the development of protest within a country that wouldn’t throw off apartheid for another 20 years.

The search for Rodriguez and the mystique of the artist that develops as the story unfolds holds our intrigue. The story unfolds similarly to an episode of 48, each segment unveiling a little more of the truth. But, nothing fancy. If the film has a villain, it is Clarence Avant, the owner of Sussex Records who becomes quite aggressive when challenged on the location of the money made from the half million copies sold in South Africa. He also gets off one of the best lines, stating that Dylan was mild in comparison to Rodriguez.

If Rodriguez was indeed bigger than The Rolling Stones in South Africa, it is a testament to how large the world was in the 70s that no one outside the country knew about it. The triumphant shows that Rodriguez would play in that country in 1998- captured here on little more than home video- are a marvel to experience- quite amazing, even transcendent to observe. That most of us who now consider him a favourite wouldn’t hear of him until 2009- seems tragic. There is magic in listening to 5000 South African citizens roaring for a Detroit labourer, hugging the stage rails as earnestly as others did for more familiar names. it is enough to make one believe that anything is possible.

With a great soundtrack featuring music from both Cold Fact and Coming From Reality as well as music from an unreleased album, Searching For Sugar Man got me into a theatre for the first time since 2010. I would suggest anyone with a passing interest in roots, soul, and folk music check their local listings.

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