Sugar Man: Did the Oscar-winning documentary mislead viewers?

The film tells the story of an unknown American musician who struck it big in apartheid South Africa – but critics says it omitted crucial facts about the life of Sixto Rodriguez.

In this photo taken Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013, Sixto Rodriguez performs on stage at Carnival City, near Johannesburg, South Africa.

With the world’s gaze still trained on Oscar Pistorius – the Olympian runner who shot and killed his girlfriend on Valentines Day – it’s been something of a rough news week for South Africa.

So it was a nice PR boost for the country Sunday when an uplifting South African story, “Searching for Sugar Man,” took home the Academy Award for best documentary feature.

The film tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, an American folk singer whose first album fizzled in the United States, only to become a runaway hit in apartheid South Africa – entirely without his knowledge.

Almost thirty years later, a couple of South African fans track down the reclusive musician, who has spent the intervening decades working as a house builder in inner city Detroit. They clue him in to his South African celebrity – one of them claims he was "bigger than Elvis" – and eventually help send him on a sold-out stadium tour in South Africa in 1998.

It’s a story ready-made for Hollywood, and watching the film, it all seems almost too good to be true.

That’s probably because it is.

To be sure, the part about Rodriguez's American obscurity is all fact. When asked how many copies of his album sold in the US, a producer for his record label said only slightly facetiously, “In America? Six.”

But it turns out Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul left out a few details in the rags-to-long-belated-riches story – notably the fact that Rodriguez was a minor hit in Australia and New Zealand in the late 1970s, and both toured and released a live album there. In 1981, he was the opening act for the Aussie rock superstars Midnight Oil – hardly the gig of an industry nobody. 

As The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw griped in his review of the film,

“It gives the audience the impression that after Rodriguez was dropped by [his American] label, he simply collapsed into non-showbiz obscurity until his South African fanbase was mobilised. But…a rudimentary internet search shows that 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.”

And Rodriguez’s Australian fame is not the only issue that Mr. Bendjelloul airbrushes in his film. He also makes a confusing attempt to conflate Rodriguez’s popularity in South Africa, chiefly among young and liberal whites, with a kind of growing social consciousness in the country. 

“Really the first opposition to apartheid, they’ll tell you they were influenced by Rodriguez,” said Stephen Segerman, a record store owner and one of the South Africans responsible for tracking down the musician, in the film.

That may be something of a stretch, given that by the time Rodriguez’s LP landed in Johannesburg and Cape Town in the early ‘70s, a movement had been fighting the country’s white minority rule and rigid segregation laws for decades. And it was hardly being led by white college students.

These omissions and molding of the facts in “Searching for Sugar Man” were all the more disappointing to many critics because the core of the singer’s story was – and remains – remarkable. The fact that Rodriguez's music could circulate so widely (selling 500,000 copies by one estimate) in South Africa without anyone there knowing who he was speaks to the country's terrific isolation in the '70s and '80s. And there is serendipity to the idea that a talented musician who missed out on fame in his own country could find it, half a life later, on the other side of the world. 

"The story was so compelling," wrote one reviewer, "that they didn't want to spoil it." 

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