Detroit, 1968. One foggy night, two music producers slip into a smoky downtown bar to check out an unknown singer-songwriter named Rodriguez. When they first lay eyes on him, he’s hunched over his guitar with his back to the audience, but they are so bewitched by his soulful melodies and philosophical lyrics that they produce his first album, Cold Fact, convinced that they’ve discovered the Chicano Bob Dylan. The record flops. Big time.
Half a world away, a bootleg of Cold Fact makes its way into Apartheid South Africa and becomes an anthem for the anti-establishment movement there. The way Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, a Cape Town record shop proprietor, describes it, Rodriguez is bigger than Elvis, bigger than the Beatles, bigger than the Rolling Stones, and every white liberal household has his records in its collection. Cold Fact goes platinum. Yet, in an isolated country where information is stringently restricted and censored, little is known about the anti-Apartheid movement’s folk hero. They say he’s dead. They say he killed himself. They say he lit himself on fire onstage.
The truth, though, is far more fascinating, depressing and finally hopeful than any of the rumors swirling around Rodriguez’s mysterious persona—a story that would strain credibility if it were dreamed up by a screenwriter—and first-time documentarian Malik Bendjelloul does a superb job of peeling back the layers of enigma for a rapt audience. Like Rodriguez’s South African fans, who had only an album cover photo to go on, Bendjelloul uncovers a few fuzzy snapshots of Rodriguez, always photographed in dark shades, and juxtaposes them with interviews with both his professional collaborators and everyday witnesses to his artistic birth, to sketch his portrait. Gradually, through grainy quasi-reenactments and animation, a picture of the early Rodriguez takes shape, always to the soundtrack of Rodriguez’s own psych-folk soundtrack.
Ultimately, though, one gets the sense that Bendjelloul, too, is holding something back. In one particularly testy interview, Clarence Avant, a Motown music executive whose now-defunct Sussex Records collected royalties for Rodriguez’s South African re-releases, is reluctant to reveal what happened to the money. Whether the issue was ever pursued or resolved isn’t discussed further. Inherent to the story is the worthy theme that great art doesn’t always yield financial reward, that Rodriguez’s triumph doesn’t hinge on how many records he sells (in the United States, anyway) or how much money he makes. Still, one can’t help but cringe at the injustice and wonder at its outcome.
Likewise, certain details about Rodriguez, especially his personal life, remain in shadow, calling into question whether they would have interfered with the inspirational narrative. By the film’s end, one comes away from Searching for Sugar Man heartened and grateful to have been introduced to his music, but not necessarily convinced that he really was found, after all.
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Writer: Malik Bendjelloul
Starring: Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, Dennis Coffey, Mike Theodore, Steve Rowland, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, Eva Rodriguez, Sixto Rodriguez, Regan Rodriguez, Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy
Release Date: July 27, 2012