Searching For Sugarman Review

The first time I heard a mesmerising little song called Sugarman was about four years ago as I was working my way through the back catalogue of fellow Irishman and DJ extraordinaire, David Holmes.

Sugarman had been covered by Holmes-fronted group The Free Association in 2002. The track was just one of the many excellent cuts on an album which could only be sufficiently categorised by awkwardly fusing about ten different genres through the magic of hyphenation.

But hey, this isn’t a music review. It’s a review of the story behind he who penned Sugarman in the first place: some bloke called Sixto “Jesus” Rodriguez.

Cool name, but who is he when he’s at home?

The key strength of Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching For Sugarman is that, at present, probably not many people could answer that question.

This also creates a slight difficulty for me in reviewing the doc without dispelling the near mythical quality of its subject. Here goes.

When I first shuffled through Holmes’ album, Rodriguez was just a nine-letter word to me, a tiny drop in an ocean of liner notes. How very little I knew of the Detroit native whose musical ability is today mentioned in the same breath as Marvin Gaye and Bob Dylan.

He released two US albums in the early seventies and, talent aside, were both commercial flops. Unaware of the huge impact his music would ultimately have in the likes of South Africa and Australia, Rodriguez prematurely hung up his guitar.

The artist’s lack of stateside success is probably best summarised by Clarence Avant, head of his former record label. When asked how many albums Rodriguez had sold in the US, Avant growls in response: “Sheeee-it, I dunno. Six?”

He’s not joking.

The documentary starts off breezily, with more location changes in the first fifteen minutes than your average James Bond flick. The use of animation is a nice touch, woven seamlessly between the obligatory archive footage and talking heads.

The tone then darkens considerably with increasingly graphic rumours of Rodriguez’s suicide. Bendjelloul turns the documentary into a mystery of conspiracy theory proportions, a gambit which mainly works due to the lack, rather than abundance, of his subject’s fame.

Naturally, the soundtrack is top notch with the main standouts being the psychedelic Sugarman and infectious I Wonder. I use ‘main’ as a qualifier because really every song is a classic, from the funk of Inner City Blues to arguably Rodriguez’s most Dylanesque offering, The Establishment Blues.

It’s a small testament to the artist that I rushed home from the screening to download pretty much every Rodriguez song I could find.

Legally too, for this film has forever deterred me from bootlegging or piracy.

It’s corny but I have to say it: this is an incredibly uplifting, yet sad, film that tells you a lot of things you didn’t even realise you wanted to know. As his former record producer Steve Rowland adamantly puts it, Rodriguez is an artist who deserves some recognition.

Hopefully this documentary will finally put paid to that.

Conor Brennan

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