Review: Searching for Sugar Man

Fresh from two prizes at Sundance, this innovative documentary tells a stranger-than-fiction tale about a remarkable Phil Ochs-like singer/songwriter from the Motor City who metaphorically rises from the dead, to the delight of his South African fans a
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This rock ’n’ roll fairy tale is too good to be true, except it is true. In the early ’70s, an obscure, working-class street poet from Detroit known simply as Rodriguez released two albums through A&M that his veteran producers were sure would bring him fame and fortune. They compared him to Dylan and the best singer/songwriters of the day. The records, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, received good reviews, but the public wasn’t buying, and that seemed to be the end of the story.

However, in the distant, self-encapsulated land of South Africa before the end of apartheid, Rodriguez became “bigger than Elvis.” Somehow his discs arrived there, and Rodriguez’s soulful, psychedelic, politically engaged songs hit a chord with young liberal whites frustrated over their government’s racist and fascistic policies. Because of South Africa’s isolation (they didn’t even have television), few foreign musicians toured there, and music was heavily censored. The often bootlegged records of Rodriguez, along with other American and British rock musicians, became highly prized, inspiring an entire generation of South Africans to protest apartheid and government control. As in Tom Stoppard’s Rock ’n’ Roll, rock music seriously threatened totalitarian regimes by waking young people up to freedom.

Some years ago, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, an avid South African fan, set about investigating what happened to Rodriguez. Many believed he had set himself on fire at the end of an unsuccessful concert. Others believed he had shot himself in the head. Eventually, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, an investigative reporter, teamed up with Segerman, and after countless dead ends, they struck gold. One of Rodriguez’s daughters came upon their website requesting information about the death of the unheralded/heralded musician. Far from being a suicide, she told them, Rodriguez was alive and well, hiding in plain sight in his hometown, Detroit, working in demolition. Neither he nor his family had a clue he was a superstar halfway across the world, having sold an estimated 500,000 copies.

Swedish documentary filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul artfully draws (sometimes literally, with effective animation) a vivid detective story, then switches gears to a well-earned celebration of life, art and survival. By the time we discover that Rodriguez lives, we’re already familiar with his music and myth, and easily join in the South Africans’ euphoria seeing him perform in their country. It’s the opposite of most music bios, showing the slow rise and tragic fall (from fame, drugs, alcohol) of a charismatic rocker. Instead we sort of see (because Rodriguez appeared in few photos, and always with dark sunglasses), a slender, shy, young Mexican-American with long dark hair who seems at peace with himself. When we meet up with him decades later, he seems much the same, yet remarkably not at all bitter about having missed out financially or emotionally from his huge South African popularity. Since his rediscovery, he has returned to tour South Africa, but the film states that he gives away most of his earnings to friends and family.

Bendjelloul takes his time leading up to the film’s high point, Rodriguez’s first performance in South Africa before an arena of chanting, awestruck fans. He interviews a local guitarist who was in the back-up band who recalls his disbelief that the man showing up would be the real deal, much less in top form. But, as he says and we see, Rodriguez steps onstage as if he’d been touring his whole life. His songs were the soundtrack of his audience’s youth; he picks up his guitar and the crowd goes wild.

The director stays off-camera, letting those who knew Rodriguez (his producers, Dennis Coffey and Steve Rowland; former Motown Records chairman Clarence Avant, who signed the singer to his Sussex imprint), and those who know him (his three grown daughters, his working-class friends in Detroit, Segerman, Bartholomew-Strydom and others) tell the story. We don’t learn that much about Rodriguez, the women in his life, whether he still writes poetry or music, and when Rodriguez speaks directly to us, he’s reticent. But watching him walk slightly unsteadily but with purpose through the snowy streets of Detroit to the home where he’s lived the past 40 years, it’s hard not to believe that miracles do happen.