Searching for Redemption

I watched Searching for Sugar Man on a plane, which means I cried through parts of it. That doesn’t say much about the film. Movies on airplanes make me weep. Since it won the Oscar for best documentary, a lot of people have been writing about how Searching for Sugar Man doesn’t deserve the prize for any number of reasons: 

That other contenders like How to Survive a Plague were better journalism and had actual impacts.

That it falsely equates Rodriguez’s music with a growing anti-apartheid consciousness.

That it’s a glorified “VH1 Behind the Music” that leaves out many convenient facts.

But if you recognize the Oscars as a prize decided by a group of baby boomer white dudes in California then it makes sense that Sugar Man won, because, like every music doc ever, Searching For Sugar Man is a dad documentary.

It’s a story about middle class white men and their quest for self actualization masquerading as a story about a Mexican-American folk singer named Rodriguez.

The film begins with a former South African soldier, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman pondering an outlandish story about Rodriguez’s public suicide. This is followed by South African journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom “investigating” Rodriguez, trying hard to figure out where in the world is this place called “Dearborn.” And while I realize this is happening before the era of Google Maps, at one point Strydom consults a globe.

If the documentary was actually about Rodriguez, it would start and finish with his story: Detroit, mental illness and addiction, his daughters, his music and the trouble with art and commercialization. Despite the long, beautiful shots of Rodriguez walking through his deteriorating Motor City neighborhood, viewers come away from the movie understanding little about the man the movie is ostensibly about.

It’s the same white-American baby boomer mythologizing that Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones keep cashing in on, that made Hendrix, Marley and Janis Joplin martyrs and that would have us believing that racism and sexism were defeated by flower power.

But Sugar Man’s brand of classic-rock nostalgia, despite being Swedish in conception, has a uniquely white South African terroir. Instead of nonsense about ending the Vietnam War, it’s about how they, white South African liberals, ended apartheid while being the only people in the world to appreciate good music.

No doubt, Rodriguez’s South African fans are a big part of his story, but in Searching for Sugar Man, Rodriguez the man feels more like an awkward prop in a story of white redemption rather than the star of his own movie.


12 thoughts on “Searching for Redemption

  1. Perhaps if Aaron had watched this not on a plane through a veil of tears, he would not have missed the point of the story. It’s quite a simple really: how come this musician who bombed everywhere else in the world is so big in a certain part of South African society? And only there? (Middle-aged, middle-class whites, in case you’re wondering.) That’s it – nothing more. Did the movie answer the question? For me – a South African who watched it not on a plane, nor weeping, the answer is no. It told us something about Rodriguez and something about white South Africa but it missed two central points: the music is awful, which is why it bombed everywhere else in the world – but awful music was what was being listened to in South Africa in those years. If you don’t believe me, listen to a couple of bands like Four Jacks and a Jill, Clout or Rabbit. They were truly appalling – yet white South Africans of a certain vintage (and their Rhodesian counterparts) loved them. Mind you, white South Africans en masse have never been famous for their artistic taste – I should know, because I am one! (Middle aged, too – but I knew Rodriguez was rubbish even back then and no amount of Oscars will change that.)

    • He didn’t bomb everywhere else. Although I enjoyed the film, I found it puzzling why the filmmaker ignored Rodriguez’ success in Australia and New Zealand.

  2. “It’s the same white-American baby boomer mythologizing that Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones keep cashing in on, that made Hendrix, Marley and Janis Joplin martyrs”

    I think extending your argument to Bob Marley is a little outrageous. Marley’s greatness was (and is) about more than just a bunch of American baby boomers.

    • I agree about Bob Marley being more than just US baby Boomer music – listen to South African Robbie Jensen’s cover of Redemption Song. As to the bigger picture on the movie itself, I think Jeremy Pool had the most balance position. There was the potential for a great story on many levels with the movie but the film makers factorial distortions (I guess to make a simpler and more marketable story) detracted from this potential. From what I have now read from many sources I think Rodriguez is a man of integrity but the film makers compromised his story.

  3. For me it’s a movie that succeeds in spite of itself. The first half is the story of dedicated if somewhat inept White South African fanboys trying to solve the riddle of who Rodriguez was. Whether or not this part works for you I think depends on how invested you are in the figure of Rodriguez and how sympathetic you are to the stories of music fans searching for their idols. For me, I find music fans simultaneously interesting and irritating. The political side of the story doesn’t work, because we already know what was at stake for others in the South African freedom struggle. While the documentary plays up the role of forbidden artists like Rodriguez in promoting a counter culture among some White South Africans, it also seems aware of how little skin in the game they ultimately had. As a result it all feels a bit hollow. These people weren’t radicalized, they just felt a bit rebellious. Especially puzzling is the fact that Rodriguez’s race is never addressed by these fans. I’m left with the impression that maybe some White South Africans were more willing to embrace the end of apartheid by their participation in this youth culture in about the same way that some White Americans were abstractly supportive of the Civil Rights movement because they felt some connection to Black artists.

    The second half of the movie, however, beginning with Rodriguez’s first appearance on screen, is mesmerizing. The picture we get of a him, both from his own testimony and that of his daughters and co-workers, is of a very humble, talented artist who didn’t let lack of commercial success make him bitter and who stayed active in politics and raised his children to be proud, engaged and involved in their communities, even with the poverty and decay that they and their city have had to endure. Particularly revealing is an exchange where the fanboy film makers interviewing Rodriguez ask him if it makes him sad or bitter that he never knew the kinds of fame and adoration that existed for him in this other part of the world and that he hadn’t enjoyed this better life that could have been his. He smiles and demures, saying that he doesn’t know if it would have been a better life, just a different life. He doesn’t romanticize the life he’s lived, but he still takes as much pride in the demolition and salvage work that he’s done in a dying city as in his artistic creations and remained an artist whether he was making a living as one or not. We don’t see nearly enough films these days where a working class hero is still something to be.

    As to his music, I quite like it, even though the arrangements seem dated and overproduced. The song he sings in his kitchen with just an acoustic guitar towards the end of the film is beautiful and has a Nick Drake-like quality to it.

  4. It is very strange that this movie talked about the anti-apartheid struggle so much, but neither interviewed nor even showed a single black person on screen. Watching the Rodriguez concert footage from South Africa you would be hard pressed to explain that apartheid wasn’t still in effect.

  5. Blown away both by the story and Rodrigues, and impressed by first-time-filmmaker Bendjelloul’s treatment, I would lie if I claimed I was not troubled by the absence of black South African voices. Even if Rodriguez did not have one single black fan, to not include analysis or reflection of one black South African in a film that claims to deal with an aspect of liberation in pre-94 South Africa seems peculiar, especially considering the important role music played in the struggle against apartheid, as Lee Hirsch’s Amandla! a revolution in four-part harmony (2002) and the lives of the likes of the late Miriam Makeba and Todd Tosama Matshikiza, Hugh Masekela and many others are a testimony to. (full review on

  6. uugh. Aaron’s “analysis” of Searching for Sugarman is so moralizing and self-righteous. It’s ageist and it racializes the musical tastes and attachments of a particular sub-group (white males) and chastises the filmmakers for not being sufficiently politically correct.

    The film is really about connections: connections that are created in spite of difference and distance and connections that exist even when people are not aware of them. It’s also about a group of people who didn’t go into exile or pick up a gun or join a movement (like so many people in SA under apartheid) but nevertheless were struggling in their own small way with the stifling restrictions and utter conservatism of the apartheid regime. I’ve always been curious about those white people who were alienated but didn’t do much and now I know a bit more about them because of this film. I also think that the film drew these subtle but powerful parallels between Detroit/Dearborn and South Africa that supported the central irony that drove the film. Rodriguez made his debut at the height of the civil rights movement in the US but did not become a commercial success. Instead, he made his impact where legal segregation still existed.

  7. Oh please, this is such a terrible review. How is this a white mans search for redemption? This story is so human and so moving precisley because its about dreams – not white or black or brown dreams, just dreams. Here is a man, forgotten by all but his family, a very human vulnerable man who has spent his whole life doing the best he can , and who unknown to himself was a giant looming large in a parallel universe. A film cant tell everyone’s story. This isnt a documentary about apartheid and why white South African liberals still don’t fraternize with their fellow black citizens, or love the same music (although one is amazed by how many white South Africans there are, and how black faces continue to be as absent in their worlds as they were 20 years ago). Its not about that. Its about how no one else cared about a man that a small demographic loved… (and Chris Gibbons, his music is NOT awful… the man had a gift f.. and I never heard him till I watched the docu)

    • Judynini,
      Bravo, a balanced response so a nasty little article. I haven’t seen the film although i want to as I was stunned when it appeared not least because my now adult children know and like Rodriguez through me and I always wondered where he went.
      My 1970s teen years were spent listening to Rodriguez in South Africa (yes I am white) and the music was nothing to do with politics that I remember.
      Rodriguez was part of the mix of stuff we listened to as kids (we also listened to Led Zepplin, Supertramp, Santana, Roxy Music, Bob Dylan, Jethro Tull and Cat Stevens etc – just like kids were everywhere else). Some Teeny Boppers listened to Four Jacks and a Jill Clout or Rabbit but rubbish wasn’t limited to South African Teeny Boppers – UK Teeny Boppers were listening to the Bay City Rollers.Manufactured rubbish was everywhere then and there is still PLENTY of it about.

      To compare a singer/songwriter like Rodriguez to rubbish music is disingenuous at best it was specifically his album Cold Fact that was famous and played everywhere in SA. Maybe this was because the lyrics of is song ‘I wonder’ resonated with horny teens in what was a very sexually repressed society.
      So was Rodriguez political and about apartheid? Naaahh sorry mate for us it was all about teen sex and rampant hormones.

      PS – If you want to listen to an artist and band who were the real soundtrack to political change but largely ignored outside South Africa, then listen to the wonderful Johnny Clegg and Juluka and his later band Savuka.

      Johnny was known as the ‘White Zulu’ and the band were one of the first and certainly the most famous ‘mixed race’ bands which in itself was ground breaking.

  8. I agree with ahgirl and judynini. This is the perhaps the most uncharitable — and downright idiotic — review I’ve ever read. While I absolutely agree that this documentary does a poor job of explaining (and probably overemphasizes) the role of Rodriguez’s music in the anti-apartheid struggle, that’s really not the point of the film. To claim that this film is a ‘white man’s search for redemption” really suggests you’ve been spending a little too much time in the African studies department of your local research institution.

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