Searching for Sugar Man

Swedish first-time filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary wonders what became of Sixto Rodriguez, the mysterious Mexican-American folk singer who in the 1970s was huge in South Africa, without even knowing it, while unaccountably irrelevant in his hometown of Detroit. Interesting story, actually — moving, surprising, and somewhat spoilable by Google, let alone conversation with anyone who’s actually seen Searching for Sugar Man, so try to go in with ears open and knowing as little as possible. You might even consider reading no further into this review. Or: See the movie, then come back.

Some mystery remains anyway; in Bendjelloul’s account, a spirit of rediscovery trumps real investigation, but there’s enough substance here to discern Rodriguez as a man of genuine modesty and unfakeable street-poet steez. Not being a proper star somehow makes him seem that much more exalted. Yes, definitely a good find, documentary-wise. It seems telling too that those who testify to his greatness include not just music-industry personnel but also a brewery owner and a construction worker.

And the songs say plenty too. They tend to be dusky, unvarnished brooders of the Nick Drake variety, although your ear might associate other singer-songwriters too: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, and on and on. With his canon-worthy talent briskly established, Rodriguez scored many points for originality by seeming abruptly to disappear from the face of the Earth. After positive early reviews but no commercial industry foothold, suddenly all that remained of him were the spotty Rashomon-like remembrances of his alleged on-stage suicide.

How rock-n-roll. Except how shameful too, if it meant Rodriguez never realized how much his melodious anti-establishment attitudes had helped white liberal middle-class South Africans cope with the repressive cruelty of Apartheid. This is true: Local reissues of his records made him bigger than Elvis down there, but somehow he never got notified or paid for it. Could that peculiar oversight account for Rodriguez doing himself in? Or perhaps a self-destruction was foretold in the music: “Sugar man, won’t you hurry? ‘Cause I’m tired of these scenes. For a blue coin, won’t you bring back all those colors to my dreams? Silver magic ships you carry: jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane….” Then again, what if the rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated?

One committed fan, the owner of a Cape Town record shop, decided to look into it. He began by combing lyrics for cryptic geographical references and other clues to the songwriter’s whereabouts. He enlisted far-flung helpers. The most remarkable of his findings — and here comes that quasi-spoiler again — was the fact of Rodriguez being alive and well and still living in Detroit.

Certainly his music career had been snuffed out, but Rodriguez just went uncomplainingly back to his day-labor demolition and construction jobs. In the film, one of his daughters suggests that maybe he’s too grounded. He does share your surprise at how his story has developed. Although friendly, he’s not the easiest interviewee, presumably in part because he’s never really had to be. He is, however, the same agreeably unpretentious guy who made those songs. Oh, that’s nice seems to be his attitude about being rediscovered — not dismissive, but definitely not expectant or entitled either. It’s a bit like he’s seen a ghost: his own. In 1998 Rodriguez traveled for the first time to South Africa, where he and his daughters were stunned by the limousines and paparazzi awaiting them, not to mention thousands of concertgoers where they’d been expecting fewer than 50. Oh, that was nice. Then he returned home to the usual stateside poverty and obscurity.

To capture this story, Bendjelloul courted poverty himself, chipping away at the project — much of which he reportedly shot on his iPhone — for four unpaid years.  Now he surely has changed his subject’s life, and his own. The movie could me more fastidious with its reportage (on both the man and his missing money), and less inclined to romanticize a hibernal, down-and-out Detroit. But as music appreciation, it seems timely and essential. Its case firmly made that Rodriguez belongs among the most adored of American troubadours, Searching for Sugar Man might well reestablish him.