It’s hard to know which is more remarkable, the documentary Searching For Sugar Man, or its subject the musician Sixto Rodriguez.
I’ll not in any way spoil the film by revealing the many, many extraordinary twists and turns that are revealed in the course of its narrative. But broadly speaking, the story is as follows:
In the early 70s a young singer song writer by the name of Rodriguez produced a couple of albums that were extremely well received critically speaking, but disappeared without a trace sales wise. So like many before and since, he went back to his day job.
Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to him his debut album Cold Fact (’70) caught fire in South Africa, selling between half a million and a million copies there, a staggering quantity given the size of the territory.
As one of the interviewees testifies, every white, middle class, would-be revolutionary quietly seething under the apartheid regime gave three records pride of place in their secretly stashed LP collection; The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Rodriguez’ Cold Fact.
Without giving anything away, the film is in two halves. Initially it’s the quest of one of the many, huge fans of his in South Africa who hooks up with a music journalist in the 90s, to go in search of their lost messiah. Whilst its second half reveals what happens after they find him.
When the film was nominated for the Oscar that it went on to win in 2013, Rodriguez politely declined to attend the ceremony, on the basis that he didn’t want to take any of the attention away from Malik Bendjelloul, the man who’d actually made the film.
Ordinarily this is the kind of gesture one expects from a conventionally faux modest, carefully calculating self-publicist looking to generate further air time and headlines. But what this documentary demonstrates is that not only is Rodriguez a genuinely deep thinker, almost uniquely he lives his life according to the principles he keeps. And those principles are best described as Epicurean.
Epicurus taught that if you find yourself sitting with a piece of bread and a glass of water in front of you, and the man next to you has a large steak and a jug of wine, you need to educate yourself to focus on how nourishing and tasty your piece of bread will be, and on how wonderfully refreshing that glass of water is. Even if you know deep down that it is already luke warm.
If you can teach yourself to be ever less dissatisfied with what you have and your lot in life, you will necessarily be happier with your life as you live it.
The 4th century Greek philosopher Epicurus was extolled by the Roman poet Lucretius in the first century BC. And the rediscovery of the only copy of Lucretius’ On the Nature Of Things, and therefore our only source on Epicurus, was brilliantly charted by Stephen Greenblatt in his wonderful The Swerve, reviewed earlier here.
Well Rodriguez, remarkably, is a bona fide modern day Epicurus.
This wonderful film does, alas, have a coda. It proved incredibly difficult to finance. But against all the odds, it was eventually completed, and quite rightly went on to win both that year’s Bafta and the Oscar a few weeks later. Surely you’d think his next film would be significantly easier to finance. We’ll never know. Because six months ago Malik Bendjelloul took his own life.
Searching for Sugar Man is a celebration of an extraordinary singer song writer. And of a wonderful film maker. You can see the trailer here.
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