Myths and legends are almost as central to the history of rock 'n' roll as the music itself: tragic deaths, mysterious disappearances and true stories so unlikely you couldn't make them up if you tried. But the amazing tale of working-class Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez exists in a class by itself.
In the early 1970s, Rodriguez made two remarkably strong albums that never registered on the cultural radar in America. Sometime after, a young woman brought a copy of his debut record Cold Fact to South Africa and played it for her friends. Unable to buy the record — and many others — at the height of apartheid, liberal dissenters spread Rodriguez's anti-establishment songs via bootleg tapes. The music eventually helped inspire the creation of a rebellious South African music scene that played a role in ending apartheid's racial segregation and white-minority rule. But it was too late for Rodriguez. Frustrated by his undeserved obscurity, he went on stage one night and lighted himself on fire in a flamboyant and uniquely public suicide. Or did he?
As seen in the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, it's clear that much of the legend of Rodriguez is true. Director Malik Bendjelloul has no trouble finding South African artists who were inspired by Rodriguez's music. Casual fans from that country put Rodriguez in the same class as the Beatles and Bob Dylan and assumed the rest of the world did too. We even meet an employee of formerly state-run radio who shows us the station's vinyl copy of Cold Fact, complete with individual tracks intentionally scratched with a knife to prevent airplay. And then there's the music: Rodriguez's powerful voice veers from Sam Cooke to James Taylor to Matthew Sweet, and the way he constructs and dramatizes his catchy, politically aware folk-rock recalls Cat Stevens at the height of his popularity. Given those powerful touchstones, it's easy to imagine the career that might have been. The fact that even diehard music obsessives hadn't heard of Rodriguez before Searching for Sugar Man lends the story a mythic quality that suits the subject matter to a tee.
First-time director Bendjelloul had made only short-form TV documentaries before Searching for Sugar Man, and he had serious trouble attracting the investors he needed to complete the film. He wound up not only finishing it on his own dime, but also crafting music, animation and other crucial elements himself despite a lack of experience. Even so, the finished product is surprisingly polished. Bendjelloul's ace in the hole is Swedish cinematographer Camilla Skagerstrom, who balances the usual talking heads and archival footage with gorgeous and contrasting cityscapes of Detroit and Cape Town. The film becomes a tale of two cities that seem to have existed in different eras, which is key to the Rodriguez story. It also gives the film a chance to delve into the larger but often neglected tale of white resistance to apartheid in South Africa.
Searching for Sugar Man stretches some facts surrounding the ultimately successful effort by two devoted fans to unravel the mystery of Rodriguez. But it's all in the name of maximizing the story's overall emotional impact, which is huge. What's rock 'n' roll without a bit of fantasy? Perish the thought. — KEN KORMAN