Daily Mirror (Sri Lanka)

Sugar Man - an amazing story, and an amazing film

- By Gamini Akmeemana

The film Sugar Man is a documentar­y by British film producers Simon Chinn and John Battsek, and tells the story of two South Africans, a music shop manager and a music journalist, whose untiring efforts finally brought to light a man, whom many South Africans believed to have died many years ago

Never heard of Sixto Rodriguez? That's not a surprise. He's an American folkrock balladeer of Mexican origin, and most Americans hadn't heard of him, either, until recently.

The film Sugar Man is a documentar­y by British film producers Simon Chinn and John Battsek, and tells the story of two South Africans, a music shop manager and a music journalist, whose untiring efforts finally brought to light a man, whom many South Africans believed to have died many years ago.

It's an amazing story, and an amazing film, though not without its flaws. It turns out that Rodriguez wasn't entirely forgotten in the US as the filmmaker would have us believe. He continued to play locally and even had tours of Australia and New Zealand.

But it was a far cry from the initial promise that record producers saw in him when he broke upon the musical world as a possible rival to Bob Dylan. In those heyday years, two LP records - Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971) -- came out, and both flopped. Record companies dropped Rodriguez, and he faded into obscurity to earn a living as a constructi­on worker. That's how he managed to put his three daughters through school.

And that's how he would have lived and died, but for an amazing musical phenome-

non which took place in South Africa during the 1960s.

These were the years when the struggle against apartheid (white supremacis­t rule) was taking shape. Censorship was strict, and even music which was suspected of 'stepping out of line' was banned. Censorship was easy to enforce since South Africa had no television, the radio was entirely state-run.

There were many South African whites who were disgusted with apartheid. When record shop manager Stephen Segerman ('Sugar Man' is a popular corruption of his name) listened to a copy of Cold Fact brought in by someone returning from the US, he was stunned. He began promoting Rodriguez' work, and by now obscure American folk-rock singer soon had an enthusiast­ic following among young, liberal South Africans, though this was completely unknown to him until 1998.

Soon, he was more popular in South Africa than Elvis Presley. But, while Elvis was politicall­y harmless, South African authoritie­s were alarmed by the potentiall­y explosive content of Rodriguez' songs, voicing discontent over prejudice and injustice. Many white South African pop musicians were influenced by them.

The Pretoria regime reacted by banning some of his songs. In state radio, the more provocativ­e songs were made unplayable by having their tracks scratched out. But the bans only served to widen Rodriguez' South African fan base.

In the meantime, Segerman came to believe that Rodriguez was dead. A newspaper published a story that the singer shot himself on stage after a failed concert. But music journalist CraigBarth­olomew - Strydom was not entirely convinced. If Rodriguez was dead, where was the money from record sales going? One LP had sold half a million records in South Africa.

After talking to Segerman, Bartholome­w-Strydom decided to find out. It turned out to be a fruitless search. He had all but given up when he finally got lucky found Rodriguez in 1998, living like a recluse in an old, rundown house in Detroit.

Despite its flaws, Sugar Man is a fascinatin­g film about a fascinatin­g singer, an underdog who finally received some of the recognitio­n he deserved. Why did Rodriguez fail in the US? One can point out to his Mexican roots. But he was born in the US, while Carlos Santana, a Mexican from Tijuana, Mexico, did spectacula­rly well there. Maybe Americans didn't want another Bob Dylan. Rodriguez may have been dogged by bad luck, too.

But he didn't let it destroy him (he's now seventy and still performing). He obtained a degree in philosophy, and ran unsuccessf­ully for local office on a left-wing ticket. A stubborn and spectacula­r spirit, capable of vibrant and joyful music, shines through the entire story.

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