Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary about a long lost American musician who is rediscovered by his fans in South Africa, has been the subject of much praise. But having grown up in South Africa, I could not help being irritated by its conceits, despite enjoying the film. The latter have stayed with me while the entertainment value has waned.
I first encountered Rodriguez when I was 14 in 1978 in South Africa. In terms of Western pop culture we were very isolated. The Beatles had been banned some years ago and we’d only had TV for two years. But there were many chinks in the apartheid regime’s armour and the Rodriguez album Cold Fact somehow slipped through. The cassette I had sounded like Dylan but was more haunting, and there were names of drugs in titles and psychedelic references. There was even a song called ‘The Establishment Blues’. This was heady stuff for a young boy in South Africa. It was strange for me to witness such a small cultural breath of my past blown up to such mythical proportions – as this film does in so many ways.
To keep it simple, there were generally two types of young white boys in South Africa in those days: those who played rugby, drank beer and got into fights; and those who listened to music and smoked dope. The latter crowd all knew the Rodriguez album forensically but we listened to a lot of other stuff and when I moved to Johannesburg in 1979 I discovered punk and everything changed. Us dope-smoking army dodgers thought we were cool and that apartheid was wrong. But our position was an extremely comfortable one – much like looking at the slaughter in Syria now but not doing anything about it, or people from Hampstead on Radio 4 being shocked about teenage pregnancy. We were nothing more than liberals. Those white South Africans who did make an effort to overthrow the regime made real sacrifices. I can’t imagine Joe Slovo or Albie Sachs were smoking joints and listening to ‘The Establishment Blues’ while operating for uMkhonto we Sizwe. Equally you’d be hard pressed to find a single African from those times who owned a Rodriguez album.
If you knew nothing of the tumultuous times in the 70s and 80s in South Africa, this film would have you believe that Rodriguez and his fans played a significant role in bringing down the regime. There’s good reason why they didn’t interview anyone who actually made sacrifices or lived in the township wars. They would never have heard of the guy. The myth perpetuated by the film and its nostalgic characters would have been laid bare and the subject of the film would have been far less relevant than they suggest. I know the film is about a tiny minority of liberal white guys but we’re led to believe that there were millions of them – there weren’t – and that they were somehow influential – they weren’t. What we’re left with is pure nostalgia for what was for most people a very dark time. Except for us Rodriguez fans. Well, it was kind of dark but we still had servants.
Passion Pictures, the people behind this film, are good filmmakers and the narrative is very well crafted. But it is like giving a documentary a Hollywood makeover – not in terms of production gloss but in terms of myth-making to suit the needs of entertainment. The claims of Rodriguez fans somehow being on the frontline of anti-apartheid activism are insulting to everyone who actually did something. The film plays into the nostalgia of middle-class white guys who like to think that they made a difference by simply having a counter-cultural attitude. It’s not true and the truth and joy in the film of finding a long lost musical hero is built on a serious conceit. But you can still enjoy the film. I did, but it’s nothing more than a fairy tale.