Searching for Sugar Man

by director Malik Bendjelloul

When I was about 20 years old I wrote a short synopsis for a fiction film about an unknown author who writes a book, gets into a car accident, goes into a coma and wakes up ten years later to discover he is one of the most famous authors in the world. Unfortunately, the script didn't work, there was no action, the guy was just in a coma, and the whole thing was pretty dull and empty. Ten years later I found out about Rodriguez and realized what a really good story looks like... Everything and everyone involved in the story has a little story of their own. It is a great big story made of 40 smaller stories. There were many decent stories that even didn't make it into the final cut of Searching for Sugar Man. Like this one:

One of the big mysteries in the story about Rodriguez is why he never became famous in America. Not just that he wasn't famous, but he didn't even make it onto the Billboard 200 chart. There are thousands of artists that no one remembers who still sold more than Rodriguez. His American failure was, in every respect, extreme.

While at the same time, his South African fame was extreme; he was on par with the Rolling Stones, he was a household name as only a handful great artists gets to become.

So how could that be? One explanation could be the story of Sussex Records. Clarence Avant's Sussex Records started out in 1969, and the first artist they signed was Rodriguez, the first album they released was his "Cold Fact." The marketing strategy was, as usual, to promote the album with a single, and the track chosen was a blues song about the hard life of the streets, a song called "Inner City Blues." On the B-side there was a beautiful love song, "Forget It."

The single was released in 1970 and it sank like a stone, it failed to chart, it didn't get any radio airplay. Then, one day, another artist steps into Sussex Records office with his demo, an artist named Bill Withers. Sussex decides to sign him, and the marketing strategy is the same: The A-side is a blues song about the hard life in the streets, "Harlem." The B-side is a beautiful love song called "Ain't No Sunshine." The single is released in 1971 and it faces the same reception as "Inner City Blues." It doesn't get played on the radio, it doesn't sell. Then one day a radio DJ plays the B-side by accident. In 1972 "Ain't No Sunshine" wins the Grammy for best R&B song, and Bill Withers is today in the songwriters' hall of fame.

Maybe it was just a flip of a coin, one artist is lucky, one artist is not, one man's life changes forever, the other man's doesn't. Until 40 years later….

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