Mystery is a powerful tool in a cult musician’s arsenal. But what happens when a great artist’s legacy is so mysterious and so enigmatic that no one seems to know whether he’s dead or alive? What happens when the case grows so cold that even an artist’s most devoted fans are left salivating for the tiniest morsel of information about their idol?
Those are some of the questions behind Searching For Sugar Man, a wholly extraordinary movie about a wholly extraordinary situation. In the early 1970s a Detroit singer-songwriter named Sixto Diaz Rodriguez (professionally known simply as Rodriguez) released two albums, Coming from Reality (1970) and Cold Fact (1971), of gorgeous, Dylanesque social commentary and profound lyricism to deafening silence in the United States before essentially disappearing from the public eye amidst dark rumours that he’d killed himself onstage
But in South Africa, where a copy of his albums were was brought into the country and then bootlegged widely, Rodriguez became a legend. The album’s mix of jangly psychedelic poetry and Dylanesque anti-establishment themes hit a nerve with a generation trying to rebel against the apartheid regime. Cut off from the rest of the world, these young South Africans embraced Rodriguez with such passion that he became bigger than Elvis, bigger than the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to boot. Yet to the rest of the world he was a nobody
Malik Bendjelloul, a Swedish television director with a handful of music documentaries to his credit, first heard about Rodriguez on a trip to South Africa in 2006. A Cape Town record-shop owner, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, told him the story, played him the songs. Segerman, a voluble character, is one of the talking heads in Searching for Sugar Man. Dennis Coffey, a producer who worked with Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, and the Supremes and recorded Rodriguez’s soul-inflected debut, is another
Bendjelloul goes on a misson to find out what happend to rodriguez and how he really died, and so he visits Detroit where to this day, a strange mythology surrounds Rodriguez. One chap, a bar rat from back in the day, recalls the musician as maybe something like a drifter. Promoters and producers who worked with some of Motown’s biggest names lament the loss of Rodriguez as an artistic force, and wonder why he didn’t strike a chord with American music fans. “Huge in South Africa” sounds like a jokey riff on “big in Japan,” but it’s more than just a joke: Rodriguez should have been as famous as Bob Dylan — it’s hard to listen to his furious yet melodic songs now and think otherwise — so why wasn’t he?
Searching for Sugar Man – the title is a reference to one of Rodriguez’s particularly excellent songs — is bursting with a thrilling sense of mystery and of artistic discovery. Beautiful and revelatory, Rodriguez’s music fills the soundtrack of this magnificent documentary detective story. These songs are striking: There are talking blues and moody, dark pop numbers that reveal an artist with a quiet rage, an outsider’s perspective, a social and political conscience – and a cool, expressive voice. You’ll surely want to devour all his music instantly once you’ve seen the movie
Bendjelloul uses animation, too, tying the elements together with lovely, loping visuals that evoke the funky desolation of Detroit back in the 1970s, the dive bars, the dreamy isolation, the seedy characters
Like its subject’s music, the first half of Searching For Sugar Man is at times agonisingly sad, but in its second half it morphs unexpectedly but wondrously from tragedy to triumph, from mourning to celebration
Finally, there is Rodriguez himself, who, finally tracked down and working quietly as a construction worker, appears both incredibly wise and good-humoured, and seems to harbour no grudges, no regrets. His music thrived, unbeknownst to him, in another place, another time. His spirit, happily, is thriving still