'Searching For Sugar Man' - True Story or the Making of a Myth?

Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man
Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics
SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen the Oscar nominated documentary Searching For Sugar Man you might want to stop reading right now.

The other day I was talking to a documentary filmmaker I admire quite a bit and mentioned how I thought Searching For Sugar Man was a lock for Best Documentary in this year's Oscar race. He cocked his head and gave me a funny look.

"Do you really think so?" he asked, pointing out how the viewer doesn't really get to know Rodriguez in the film. You get to meet his daughters and the two guys who were searching for him, but you don't meet Rodriguez himself.

"The movie isn't true," he went on to say. "They left out a lot of the story. He wasn't as obscure as they make it out in the movie."

To say I was surprised by this observation would be an understatement. Searching For Sugar Man has been mentioned by many of my friends have been raving about Malik Bendjelloul's doc since the summer and not just their favorite documentary, but as their favorite movie. It was a huge hit at Sundance last year and almost universally praised by critics coast to coast.

For those of you that don't know the story, Searching for Sugar Man is the tale of an American musician who went by the name of Rodriguez (aka Sixto) and put out two records in the early '70s before disappearing after his career didn't take off in the USA and rumors of his death by suicide started to spread. Yet, while Rodriguez was deemed a commercial failure at home, his records were extremely popular in South Africa and, about that suicide... not so much.

The film follows two South African fans -- Stephen "Sugar" Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom -- as they try to find out if the rumors of Rodriguez's death are true, and what exactly happened to him.

The problem with all of this is he wasn't exactly "rediscovered" by the two South African fans. As Rodriguez himself knows, the Detroit musician released a "Best of Rodriguez" compilation in Australia in 1977. That lead to a tour of medium sized halls in Australia in 1979, which in turn lead to his live album in 1979, recorded during the tour. Then, of course, there was the arena tour of Australia with Midnight Oil when they were becoming one of the biggest acts in the world in 1981 and he ironically covered the band's "Redneck Wonderland" at Sundance last year. His records were also in print in numerous countries in Europe throughout the '70s and '80s and into the '90s as well.

That also brings into question how hard the South African fans shown in the film really tried to find Sixto in the first place. We're told Segerman is a music store owner and yet he doesn't seem to know record distributors have one of the most comprehensive databases in the world and anyone who has ever worked in a record shop or just hung-out in record shops in the '70s and '80s would know that. It might have been harder to find an import record in the '80s but not that hard. People did it all the time. I ordered a copy of The Easybeats from Australia because it was the only compilation I could find with both "Friday On My Mind" and "Good Times" on it. By the late eighties and early nineties all of those records were cataloged on computers as well.

Almost no one in the US wrote about any of this in their glowing reviews. No one took the time to Google the man after watching the film. Perhaps the story was so compelling they didn't want to spoil it. It is somewhat surprising no one has written about these facts in the US considering the film infers the artist had been neglected in his home country all these years. You would think they would want to know everything about him.

On the other hand, reviewers in the UK noticed these flaws almost immediately. For example, this review by Peter Bradshaw in the UK Guardian:

"Here, though, we come to the flaw in the movie. It gives the audience the impression that after Rodriguez was dropped by the label, he simply collapsed into non-showbiz obscurity until his South African fan base was mobilised. But director Malik Bendjelloul is guilty of the sin of omission. A rudimentary internet search shows Rodriguez's musical career did not vanish the way the film implies, and the film has clearly skated round some facts, and frankly exaggerated the mystery, to make a better and more emotional story."

Even more telling than the review is the comment section. Comments like one from "mcruz" writing, "(Rodriguez's) 'Cold Fact' was a popular album in the late '70s in my high school in Australia."

Fulhamish says, "I had 'Cold Fact' on when a friend came round to dinner the other day. She and her mates had listened to it loads at uni in England in the late nineties and she was bemused that this film made out he was somehow forgotten. Still, looking forward to seeing the film."

The comments were so numerous BaddHamster finally responded, "So he's an obscure musician who apparently everybody in the world (judging from this thread) has heard at some time or another? Cool."

Not just around the world, music geeks in the US were apparently aware of Rodriguez as well. I know this because I went to my local used record store and asked about him. I got the typical jaded record store response to my inquiry about the film and one I expect Barry (Jack Black) from High Fidelity would give. These grizzled vets were glad Rodriguez was getting some love but basically called BS on the film itself. As one who has seen Stephen Frears' excellent ode to record store workers at least twenty times, I expected nothing less.

There was a lot of other material online calling the doc into question including this screed from something called The Lefsetx Letter. Mostly, however, there was universal praise for the Sundance winner. Why not? It's a real crowd-pleaser.

There is also more to the film than just the search for Rodriguez. There is the story of young Afrikaners opposed to apartheid in the '70s and '80s. The fact Rodriguez's music somehow touched a nerve in the hearts of young white liberals in South Africa in a way Bob Dylan and the Beatles touched other people around the world in the '60s. It is the story of the power of music.

My question for the audience, however, is how much leeway do expect from a documentary filmmaker? There's a lot of talk about the truths in films such as Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty which are both "based on" or "inspired by" real events, but what about a documentary, which is expected to tell us actual truths?

Is it okay to bend the truth in order to make the story better than it really is? And what do you think about these new revelations about Sugar Man?

BONUS: In 2001 Nas sampled Rodriguez's "Sugar Man" on "You're Da Man"

  • Anon

    It's stated pretty clearly in the movie that Segerman didn't become a record store owner until well after Rodriguez's return tour.

  • http://www.twitter.com/GregDinskisk GregDinskisk

    Yeah, Searching For Sugar Man may have bended the truth, but what does that matter? Documentaries aren't necessarily meant to tell the truth, but rather keep you informed, right? After seeing it, I felt more informed about the musical history and revolutions (kinda) of South Africa, and about Sixto! I'm glad I saw it, and don't really care how much was made up or erased.

    • John Calhoun

      "Documentaries aren't necessarily meant to tell the truth...."


      • http://movie-place.blogspot.com/ Satish Naidu

        Yup, GregDinskisk is right. Every camera movement, every edit, betrays the director's own ideology. When a filmmaker picks up the camera, there is no such thing left as the "objective truth".
        Haven't we all heard of Triumph of the Will?

        Documentaries are just about as much about propaganda, about ideology as narrative films. I haven't seen this film, but I completely disagree with an assumption that a narrative work like Zero Dark Thirty, or Lincoln, or The Impossible is less answerable for mucking up history. That they put their images on the screen in such a manner itself suggests that they are on the same road.

        The Imposter is the finest example that completely blows such an assumption to pieces. It so beautifully manipulates us in the name of a documentary that if I had a fictional film to be made on the subject I would have made it the exact same way.

        • ralf

          Don't disappear into a cloud of relativism. This is a documentary that actually misleads.

    • Frenchconnection

      "Documentaries aren't necessarily meant to tell the truth, but rather keep you informed, right?"

      Are you kidding? I'll bet money that you like Michael Moore!

      • David Chipps

        Michael Moore misleads all the time. He took the Wallmart dead peasant insurance scam out of context. The dead peasants insurance scam, occurred in the early 1990's with 73 employees. Moore does not give time or context in his film Capatalism: A Love Story and would leave the viewer believing this is common everyday, present day practice.

  • Jeremy Laurenson

    I agree that there was a lot left out of the movie, including details about his kids' mother, most glaringly.

    The story is specifically about "Searching for sugar man" from a specifically South African/USA perspective where the massive contrast of his popularity remains.

    To the degree that this is about that divide, and the South African rediscovery, it's accurate.

    So I suppose it's sticking to the title. It's not a documentary called "Rodriguez"

    • jocelyn j

      You hit the nail on the head the doco was about the sth african search for a musician virtually unknown in the US. why? because he was a latino in the 70's.. So he made a few trips to australia and some were aware of his music. Why isnt he big worldwide then like other 70's icons? because he was latino thats why. good on him for having some deserved recognition at 70.

  • http://hypethemovies.wordpress.com Jordan B.

    Interesting article, Bill! I have not yet seen Searching for Sugar Man and against your warning read the article anyway. Without seeing the film, I don't have an opinion on this doc specifically, but yes, I would agree that the intention of documentaries generally is to inform an audience and make them aware of an issue, event, or situation, primarily through the presentation of facts (though some absolutely skew those facts to build an agenda). I wholeheartedly agree with you, as well, that it is stunning to hear a huge outcry over Zero Dark Thirty's "misrepresentation of facts" and hardly hear a peep over Searching for Sugar Man, especially since documentaries are largely more educational in nature than are feature films.

  • http://timeforafilm.com Alex Thomas

    Wow, great article. I still loved the film and I think film-makers are allowed quite a lot of leeway in my opinion, probably because films wouldn't be as exciting if they were to the exact detail, as usually life isn't that exciting.

    In this case, while they didn't show everything, I don't think they missed out on too many critical points, except for the Australian tour and success, which was definitely omitted for the storyline. That being said, I'm glad it was as it made the doco better.

    Happy with my Australian taste in music!

  • DavidG

    I think documentary makers should be given some leeway, though obviously significantly less than films like Lincoln. However, I do think it damages the quality of the documentary and bolsters those documentaries that manage to remain tense and exciting without embellishing or omitting (i.e. How to Survive a Plague).

  • Anonymous

    I have seen the documentary and I was inspired by the story. The film was about South African's who foramy years thought Rodriguez was no longer alive. They explained very well how sheltered the South African community was for so long and why it would be very difficult to them to gain access to new information, especially 15 years ago. Remember thr Internet was not the great information resource 15 years ago that it is today. I do agree that this story omitted certain parts of Rodriguez's life. That's okay, this was about South African's looking for Sugar Man. It was not about London, Australia, New Zealand or anyone else. Having said all of that, I had never heard of Rodriguez before I saw the film. I have asked others who had also never heard of him. The man is to be celebrated, the film is to be cheered, and the cynics need to smile once in a while.

  • Kyle

    Having just finished the movie, I don't know if I really care that much about his success in Australia and the UK, because I didn't love the movie as much as everyone else anyway. It had storytelling flaws even before I read this article, and now it seems as though said flaws make sense, as they had to leave out some parts of the story. Basically, like a lot of docs, take this information with a grain of salt. Then go watch 'The Invisible War' because it's a better film.

  • deonj

    The movie is from a South African perspective! I find it amazing that there is always someone who has to be a Smart Alec whenever a movie is popular and he makes it his mission to sound more "in the know" and proceeds to try and discredit the movie!
    Keep in mind that due to the political instability in South Africa and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) - where Rodriguez was also huge during the Rhodesian war - dating back to the 1970's (and long before), South Africans and Rhodesians streamed into Australia and Europe to escape uncertainty of war and political unrest, many of them took Rodriguez with them introducing him to new followers.

  • Fairestcape

    I bought my copy of Cold Fact (an A&M imported pressing) in a Johannesburg music store back in December 1973. The film tells an accurate story of how these songs influenced three generations of South Africans and how Rodriguez was "adopted" by people opposed to apartheid. But the main reason we bought the album was because it is good music. I thoroughly enjoyed the film because it showcased so many aspects of my life in South Africa.

    On the question of Malik being "selective" with the facts, I do feel that mention should have been made of Rodriguez Australian quests in the late 1970's. The first, with Mark Gillespie was fairly well received, but did not attract new listeners in sufficient numbers to suggest he was on a comeback. I do know (from a friend who was living in Oz at the time) that even though Rodriguez went touring with Midnight Oil, he was very much a supplementary "add-on" to their tour. By that stage, though still popular with a core following in Oz, the audience had moved on. The release of the Alive album was not a great success in Oz, and didn't even get to South Africa.

    For Rodriguez, this attempt to re-start his musical career was not a success, and he quickly drifted back into relative obscurity. It was a "non-event" in reality. The audience had really come to see Midnight Oil, and having Rodriguez on the bill was just a little sweetener for his hard-core fan-base. It is doubtful if he would have drawn the crowds had he toured on his own.

    Bear in mind it was almost two decades later that he was brought to South Africa. Steve Segerman ran a jewellery shop in Johannesburg and was as ignorant of what had happened in Australia as everyone else who liked his music in SA. Much of the story in tracking down Rodriguez came down to sheer chance and luck...

    And that is what this film is about... it is about the SEARCH rather than the man himself.

    But yes... the film loses a little of its gloss by not mentioning his tours in Australia. I don't think that such a mention would lessen the impact. It is a pity Malik chose to leave it out all together.

  • Sandra Hunter

    I have to agree with another reviewer: this movie wasn't about the entire lack of Rodriguez's success -- but his lack of success in the US. Even if he did tour in Australia, he didn't become a rockstar because of it. And, as the other reviewer points out, the ability to track down information via the internet has significantly changed research capabilities. During apartheid, it was very difficult for South Africans to learn much about the outside world. You only have to read Steve Biko's"I write what I like" to realize how sequestered SA had become.
    "Sugarman" was a terrific story about the journey to find the musician -- and his music.

  • Hollywoodsucks

    That's exactly how history is changed. Someone fudges, someone else believes, repeat, voila. Infers that the truth isn't entertaining enough. There are truly magical stories out there, about real people, and it wouldn't take six years to find them if you are looking for truth. We get enough crap from our so-called political leaders who, in fact, are in bed with all of Hollywood. Is it too much to ask for a documentary to avoid such cheap controversy? Make a movie about a singer/songwriter. You'll get an audience if it's good. Leave the documentaries to heroes like Sir David Attenborough.

  • Michael Sandstrom

    I watched the movie once yesterday and once today before reading this article. I loved the movie and I even like that it's not the absolute truth. After the first viewing I started thinking critically and realized that there was a bit of propaganda in the presentation but it all was so well crafted. Also, the way the movie addressed piracy was thought provoking in that the record company owner was the real villain but music fans who may have pirated kept the dream alive. There is a place for myth making in our world--most of our recorded history is myth.

  • Maria Abrantes

    There are some sweeping statements in the movie that can't be ignored: 1) Rodriguez's lyrics influenced the mindset of young white South Africans, encouraging a more 'anti-establishment' attitude and feeling; 2) Rodriguez's lyrics and message were too powerful for the US market at the time; 3) Rodriguez's genius was acknowledged by a bunch of losers in Africa who weren't expected to survive the impending civil war that was supposed to be coming to their country; 4) These are the ingredients that make for a great fairytale, not fact.

    The fact that the basic elements in this story are real, is what makes this documentary a legendary masterpiece.

  • Keef Mack

    As a musician in the US who from a teenager in the 70's through today had one of the largest record collections with as diverse a collection as anyone, who also is a huge fan of singer/songwriter and obscure musicians such as Blaze Foley or Nick Drake, I can say that had I not watched the film I would never have heard of him.
    Also, I can imagine also in apartheid SA and the fact that everyone just took as fact that he had died, though the facts of the death were not clear, they still believed he was dead. So who thinks about trying to find a dead man? What they first attempt is just to find out exactly how he died. So for those people to know of only two records, the stories of his death, and no subsequent releases, and knowing that here in the U.S. nobody knew about him. If you now ask some record store owner or eclectic music geek if he had heard of him you will probably get "oh yeah, of course" when in fact I'd bet they never did either until this film.

  • Bob’s your Uncle

    Go to one of his concerts here in South Africa (and maybe the world). Average age is about 45-55 with family's and kids of 15-18yrs or so. If he's not that special to any person or group, how many 70yr old musicians can sell full house (+-5000) to all ages like this at every venue. Where the crowds literally 'bring the house' down every song.

    Rodriguez had a marked effect on South Africans in the 70's and 80's, and for them this is a doccy about remembering the good times during a bad, the search and finding the man who gave those people hope.

    Emotions aside.. this is an excellent documentary that works on the emotive issues of the story, and it's done well. It does leave out a lot, but will you watch a 1000 hr doccy in one sitting ?.

    It's naive to think that any media is going to tell the exact story. :-)

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/CNeil/ CNeil

    I just watched the movie tonight and am still in the daze of its surreality, listening like a teenager to every one of his songs I immediately purchased and downloaded...I'll pretend like I didn't just read this article...it was almost too magical to be true...ah well, I still love it and him!

  • Greg Caz

    Here's one more overlooked aspect of the Rodriguez phenomenon: apparently, one or more copies of his second album, 1971's "Coming From Reality," made their way down to Kingston, Jamaica and were seized upon by assorted reggae singers in producers, resulting in covers of "Silver Words" (Ken Boothe, Dennis Brown) and "Halfway Up The Stairs" (Delroy Wilson) in the early to mid-70s.

  • Christine James

    I remember listening to Rodriguez all those years ago. And when he finally made it to Melbourne, Australia to play at the Palais Theatre, I couldnt wait. However, It was the only concert I have ever walked out on. Rodriguez was so "Off his face" that he couldnt remember the lyrics to his songs. He did not have any other musicians with him and I was heart broken. I have still listened to his albums throughout the years. The lyrics are powerful and beautiful and can certainly make you see life in a different way. I would love to see him again but missed out on concert tickets. Maybe fate will play my way. This man is a legend.

  • http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/movies/rodriguez-found-but-take-this-sweet-story-with-a-grain-of-salt-20121003-26znp.html What’s Up Doc

    Documentaries should hew more closely to the facts of history than is evident in "Searching for Sugar Man". More rightly, it should be promoted as a dramatic film "based on a true story".

    Here's some more detail on the Australian tours and recordings:

    "Rodriguez found, but take this sweet story with a grain of salt"


  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Big_in_Japan/ Big_in_Japan

    How obscure is it for a US musician to have no commercial success at home, but be huge in a small country on the other side of the world that was heavily censoring the music that was played? Especially when neither he, nor his label, did any promotion there? I think the movie is dead-on for how it portrays the artist and his relationship to the people of South Africa.

    I mean, it's not like he was big in the US, fell off the charts and then got big somewhere else in the world. Spinal Tap is the only band I can think of where something like that actually happened...

  • Heyman

    When I wached the Docu I felt something was missing. Then I did some research on the web and really felt misinformed!

    Thank you for a great article!

    There's always the question if a director added to mutch of his vision of the truth or not.
    In this case I personal think he over did it big time.

    In my opinion the docu is about:
    A guy working in construction who finds out he is a rockstar.

    And this is simply not true. He already knows he is a rockstar. Maybe not in South Africa, maybe not by this magnitude. But does that matter?

  • Tammam

    To Fairetscape: Thank you for your comment. I saw the movie about a month ago and it made a tremendous impact on me. I'm a big fan of music from that era, and I enjoyed Rodriguez' music and was astounded by the story. I've also lived a good part of my life in Michigan, about 35 miles from Rodriguez' Detroit home, which made it all the more amazing to think that I had never heard of him. Reading later about his Aussie incursions made me feel a little cheated, so I read all I could find about this missing portion of the story. I think your comment is the most balanced statement I have come across on the subject.

    I do have to disagree with you on one point though: You say you do not think that a mention of the Australian episode would have lessened the impact of the story. The film gives the impression that Rodriguez' first performance in South Africa was his first ever before an audience of any substantial size. That critical scene, among others, would be quite different if the viewer was aware of his Australian experience.

    Thanks though for the thoughful and informative comment. There are more important things going on in the world, but the minutiae of this extraordinary story have taken on some personal importance to me!

  • Jenga

    Agree with the flaws pointed out here, but the documentary is called 'Searching For Sugar Man' and not 'Sugar Man'. It's a South African perspective and is about their search for someone who was so enigmatic a figure for the common South African. I can't really see a discussion on his popularity in other countries being relevant enough to demand a major chunk of this movie, but yes, a little scene/couple of scenes could've been included.

  • searching for a hair in the soup

    I don't like the attitude you show towards the film in this article. You appear like you just WANT to find a fluke in the story. So - he toured in Australia in 1981 - how should some south africans have been knowing about this? In their record lists they do keep lists also of every tour some small time musician like he was at that point would do somewhere in the world. As one comment here said that attended a concert of his in Australia, obviously he did not even have a support band at the show and also according to the film, he showed his back to the audience at some gig in the US. I would guess he is just rather a shy, humble guy which also explains, why he could not make it big in the US, also his name was hispanic, so he did not have such a big lobby from anyone, especially with his rather intellectual lyrics.

    But guys like you just turn on google and go straight to wikipedia and think they know it all. The movie makes perfect sense from the view of the south africans at that time who listened to the music and now with all the hype this is of course a big issue, what should have been just a normal documentary.

    Of course the movie leaves out certain aspects, but overall I do not think they bend the truth as much as you would like to suggest. Back in the 1990s there was no wikipedia yet (started in 2001), so there wasnt information available on every body like you suggest. Obviously he also got scammed of his royalties - I guess even the company in South Africa might have even scammed the US company - so they did not want to pass their contact info eagerly.

    And like anyone who needs to prove his point you cite some other blog, that shares your view, I will just cite how wrong that guy is:

    P.S. Hell, he was sampled by Nas back in 2001. “Sugar Man” was featured in the film “Candy,” released in 2006, starring Heath Ledger. This guy wasn’t hiding, he was in plain sight!

    To clear it up: The guys from south africa, whose search this movie is about discovered him again in the mid 90s - not after 2000 - so they were the first that started the hype bandwagon that the guys in the US obviously jumped on.

    "After coming into contact with the authors of the website and learning of his long-standing fame in the country, Sixto went on his first South African tour, playing six concerts in front of thousands of fans. A documentary about the tour, Dead Men Don't Tour: Rodríguez in South Africa 1998"

    So far for your intense research into the movie and editing reality to your liking. Next time do your research better than just googling for some other guys that do not believe the story, because there will always be some people that share your view no wonder how wrong it might be.

  • William Bowe

    The film gilds the lily a little for the sake of the story - but then, so does this article. You can find - if you *really* try - an incomplete list of dates from his 1981 tour of Australia with Midnight Oil, and you will see they played hotels and universities rather than "arenas". It's sort of true that Midnight Oil were "becoming one of the biggest acts in the world", but they still had a long way to go in 1981. That said, Rodriguez was playing impressively sized theatres when he first toured Australia in 1979, and contemporary accounts of that tour sound a touch familiar if you've seen the film.

  • daddy d

    any claim that documentary should be free to take liberty with the truth is complete boloney. fiction is fiction. point of view can be demonstrated through the filter of the director in editorial, but playing false with the facts is a lie...propaganda...NOT documentary. if someone like michael moore has his own perspective or agenda, but is essentially presenting facts, he's still a documentarian. if someone knowingly tells a false story as fact, they are a liar and propagandist.

  • Ioanna

    So many inaccuracies and omitions in this "documentary", it amazes me that it received critical acclaim as such! I can't believe that no reporter had ever researched the artist that was "selling more than the Rolling Stones" at a certain point, to track down his whereabouts. Until a random guy in the 90's started looking through his lyrics searching for clues? The man was touring all along and was in plain sight! Call the record label, man, they'll fill you in! I am all for the power of music, but that was NOT a documentary. It would have been more truthful if it had just focused on Rodriguez's music, rather than the fake mystery around him.

  • Josefina Urrutia

    Yes, the Australia part was omitted, but the South African audience did think he was dead, which is the main point of this (true) story. There is no point in criticizing a movie for not been a math book; it's quite annoying.

  • Mark Maloof

    I did enjoy the doc very much, but as one of those "music geek" types who knew of the extremely talented Mr. Rodriguez before the film came out (well, a couple years, thanks to the wonderful vinyl reissues that Light in the Attic put out), I was peeved that his moderate success in Australia was never touched apon, and glad it was addressed here. Still did enjoy the doc besides that.

  • A Amiri

    Dude, I saw the film last night and had doubts about it throughout the movie! Even when it gets emotional and touches upon your heart... I could still hold on to my doubts and this next day (today) I questioned the facts and reached your article!

    With due respects, don't expect the sheeple to question the things that may come to them! Let them enjoy their fabricated reality!

    In the end, the movie is indeed good enough because it made someone like Rodriguez to become more known and appreciated, knowing that no documentary can be 100% correct!