'Searching for Sugar Man': New doc investigates a '70s folk-music mystery

Sony Pictures Classics’ music-themed, investigative doc Searching for Sugar Man marks the amazing feature debut of its writer/director/producer/composer/cameraman/editor/animator Malik Bendjelloul. Even more amazing is the film’s rediscovery of “lost” Detroit-based recording artist Sixto Rodriguez, a very bright flash-in-the-pan who disappeared as quickly as his first two albums did in the early ’70s.

Bendjelloul’s movie, winner of both the World Cinema Special Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance, is as much a fascinating chronicle of the modest, level-headed musician and his unbelievable journey as it is an intriguing mystery and peephole into fame, good luck, the slippery business of music, and maybe the simple satisfactions of dedicated blue-collar labor.

Beyond the many hats Bendjelloul dons for this first effort, he also wears that signature Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap by proving that he’s also an ace gumshoe. In fact, says Bendjelloul, he did all the research himself, beginning with finding his subject, a Chicano folk-rock composer/singer/guitarist who had done hard labor at the local Chrysler facility before singing at downtown dives in the late ’60s and achieving local celebrity.

His infectious music, with reverberations of Dylan, Donovan, Phil Ochs and Lou Reed, caught on at the Motor City bars, where a producer found and signed him to A&M’s Suffolk label. Two albums followed quickly (Cold Fact and Coming from Reality). They were well-reviewed but mysteriously bombed, and Rodriguez faded from sight just as quickly.

Rumors flew: Rodriguez was dead, maybe murdered or even suicided right onstage during a performance. Well, no. In the early ’70s, a U.S. fan sent a bootleg copy of Cold Fact to a friend in South Africa, where Rodriguez became a star, bigger even than Jim Morrison or Elvis. Just as Dylan’s music had rallied the youthful anti-war, anti-segregation forces in the U.S. of the ’60s, Rodriguez’s music was embraced by the country’s youth at the height of the anti-apartheid movement in the ’70s and turned him into a big recording star there—heard but not seen. Then came his South Africa rediscovery in the mid-’90s, when Rodriguez was lured from obscurity and performed major concert dates there, all the while remaining a nonentity in the States.

Searching for Sugar Man is not just a film infused with mysteries but suggests mysteries off-screen. For instance, how did Bendjelloul, a Sweden-based  filmmaker in his mid-30s, stumble upon this forgotten Detroit rocker from the early ’70s?

The son of a Swedish mother and Algerian father, Bendjelloul has been directing commercials, music-videos and music-themed documentaries for 12 years in his home country, including the first-ever documentary about German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk and short docs about Elton John and Madonna, among others. He directed a filmed concert with Prince and covered many non-music subjects for Swedish television. Two of these pieces later inspired features: the George Clooney starrer The Men Who Stare at Goats and Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal.

Based a continent away from both the U.S. and South Africa, Bendjelloul explains his surprising encounter with so unlikely a subject: “I was traveling around the world for six months looking for stories, something to film. For ideas, I read so many newspaper and magazine articles in each country I was visiting. I spent a lot of time in South America as I know some Spanish, but it was in Cape Town, South Africa, where I met Stephen Segerman and heard the best story I had ever heard in my life.” (Segerman, a Johannesburg-born baby-boomer and ex-jeweler with a law degree, now runs a Cape Town record store and the Rodriguez website. A major Rodriguez fan in the ’70s, he helped rediscover the performer and enable his emergence in South Africa in the 1990s and now again, with the help of Bendjelloul.)

Bendjelloul jumped into the daunting challenge of tracking down sources on two continents, neither of them his own. Besides finding Segerman, he also struck South African gold by interviewing journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, who, in the 1990s, researched the missing singer and wrote the original article about that search. The journalist, believing in the “follow the money” mantra, started with the clue that the city of Dearborn in Michigan was in a Rodriguez lyric and ran from there until he found that a very alive Rodriguez was living in Detroit.

Through über-Rodriguez fan Segerman, Bendjelloul met many others besides Bartholomew-Strydom who were critical to his story, which led to more on both continents who were somehow connected to Rodriguez’s professional and personal life. These included South African Rodriguez fans of the ’70s who became his back-up band for performances in the ’90s; Motor City bartenders from his early career; some of the singer’s more recent blue-collar co-workers, and people involved in production of his two albums. But most satisfying are the encounters with the contemporary Rodriguez and his amiable daughters. Asked why Rodriguez’s wife is not shown, Bendjelloul says that she was filmed but hit the proverbial cutting-room floor because of time concerns.

As for structuring the doc as a mystery, Bendjelloul responds, “Right away that was my thought and I also thought the story should be told from the South African perspective, because for 30 years these great fans thought him [Rodriguez] dead. And because he was so big in South Africa, the question of how he died loomed even larger there, especially because of all the rumors.”

Bendjelloul’s most astonishing “get” (spoiler here) is that he found Rodriguez—family man and blue-collar laborer—living modestly in a lower-middle-class Detroit neighborhood and working construction and demolition jobs.

If Searching For Sugar Man abounds in mystery, it also offers surprises. The Rodriguez that Bendjelloul finds impresses as no flamed-out rocker. Rather, the filmmaker and audiences encounter a nice, regular, gentle guy at peace, with none of the expected fame or drug-induced scars or cynical, bitter attitudes of a cliched has-been.

A bonus on this album, oops, film, is its somewhat askance glimpse into the music business back when a whole lotta spending was going on requiring a whole lotta funny money. Indeed, there’s the mystery of where Rodriguez’s earnings went. After all, he did land record deals and gained fame in South Africa, selling platinum albums and eventually performing in sold-out stadiums.

Bendjelloul interviews at least two music industry people who were close to the money: Palm Springs-based actor-turned-producer Steve Rowland, who produced Rodriguez’s second album Coming From Reality, and former Sussex label founder Clarence Avant, who signed the singer for Cold Fact, his first LP. Bendjelloul says the question of where the money went is a good one but that he doesn’t know. “It’s a very complicated case. One story that still lives is that there is an account in Australia that is holding Rodriguez’s money, but that it is in the wrong name.” Mystery unsolved.

As to the other “shady” but minor mystery about why Rodriguez, whom the filmmaker first met in 2008, is so fond of sunglasses, Bendjelloul believes that “maybe it has to do with his mysterious personality, as he was very much an enigma. Yes, he’s very humble, but he’s very private and you just don’t get that close to him. Even his friends say that. He’s a mystery.”

Beyond its narrative punch, Searching For Sugar Man is also visually rich. The director got great results, including beautiful shots of Cape Town, from a simple Sony EX1 HD camera. He employs a little animation and several seamless re-enactments (the filmmaker appears in one) of the early club scenes and snowy Detroit streets. “I couldn’t get the funding I needed, so I had to take on the animation and re-enactments myself,” he explains.

Bendjelloul’s research also led him to archival material like footage of the singer’s arrival in South Africa with his family, his sold-out performance, and earlier news footage of the country’s anti-apartheid struggle.

One of the doc’s prime mysteries is why, with so much talent and promise, Rodriguez didn’t make it. Bendjelloul speculates: “Good question, but what only comes to mind is that his Latin name and Latin looks might have had something to do with it, especially at that time in America when you expected to hear Mexican performers play Mexican music.” Unwilling to concede any resemblance to a Dylan or others, he thinks the singer sounds “like nobody because he’s very much his own person. And I prefer Rodriguez to Dylan.”

It’s no mystery that the thrilling Searching For Sugar Man, the doc’s soundtrack (available July 24 on Sony Music's Legacy Recordings label) and re-emergence of such hooky Rodriguez singles as “I Wonder” and “Sugar Man” will finally have a whole lotta Rodriguez material landing in CD or online music collections. But will his rediscovery deliver to Rodriguez the singing career and lost money he deserves? Ah, the sour mystery of fame.

Even Bendjelloul’s next project is a mystery. “I don’t know,” he says. “I have ten ideas but no time now because of promoting Searching... I’m going to consider fiction and nonfiction. I’m going to read scripts and write one of my own.” What jazzes him is “a really good story, whether driven by a great character or well-told. A story with many levels, a strong progression and a good ending.” As Searching for Sugar Man proves, Bendjelloul knows a good story when he meets one.