“Searching for Sugar Man,” a documentary by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, has been nominated for an Oscar. But only with its recent release on DVD should it get the audience it richly deserves, having been largely screened at international film festivals, then in limited release in “art houses” in this country. It focuses on a man’s almost obsessive quest to find a singer/songwriter known only as “Rodriguez.” Along the way, though, the movie has a good deal to say about the quirkiness of fame, the cost of authenticity, and the basic decency of its focal character.
Bendjelloul employs numerous documentary devices to cover the search and its aftermath, a necessity given the paucity of usable information on Rodriguez. Interviews, grainy archival film clips, even some animation supply the background, which is considerably enriched by the soundtrack consisting largely of Rodriguez’s own work, including what serves as a kind of title track, “Sugar Man.”
The reference is to a street drug dealer, and it opens up the world that Rodriguez inhabited and sang of for much of his early career. A bar musician as a young man in Detroit in the 1960s, he was discovered, signed to a recording contract, and recorded two albums. They received critical acclaim yet, to the mystification of their admirers, went absolutely nowhere. For decades, Rodriguez supported himself and his family as a laborer, demolishing houses among other blue collar jobs, but sticking firmly to his artistic and political principles.
Meanwhile, his music found its way to South Africa, where it became an anthem for the anti-apartheid movement. (Think Dylan and, for instance, “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the antiwar movement here.) Rodriguez became a cultural icon, his records sold extremely well, and a mystique grew up around him, including the apocryphal story that he had committed suicide by setting himself afire on stage.
The owner of a Cape Town record store, Steve “Sugar” Segerman, fascinated by the music and the mystery of this important, elusive figure, began in the 1990s trying to find out what he could about Rodriguez. Employing the internet and his own decoding of the albums’ lyrics, he and others eventually concentrated on Detroit and finally discovered the artist, living in a working-class neighborhood. Sixto Rodriguez had received no royalties from his albums and knew nothing of his South African popularity. (How he got gypped is touched on but never fully explained).
Utilizing interviews with Rodriguez’s grown daughters, the film doubles back to pick up the years between the albums and Segerman’s meeting the singer/laborer in his humble digs, including his unsuccessful attempts in local politics. From there, it’s a short hop to the artist’s triumphant first trip to South Africa, his concerts selling out wherever he appeared. Bendjelouell shows the ecstatic fans and the somewhat overcome singer, whose importance to the protest movement has been suggested in clips of the clashes it helped inspire.
But the man himself, for all the movie’s attempt to describe the cultural phenomenon he represents, remains something of a mystery, laconic and inward. Wisely, the film is content to let some of that mystery remain, adding to the intrigue. Though Rodriguez is now famous enough to be the subject of a recent “Time” magazine interview and a “60 Minutes” segment, he retains some of the teasingly suggestive opacity of his songs.
“Searching for Sugar Man” is rated “PG-13” for some brief strong language and drug references, both appropriate for the turbulent times the movie recalls. As I watched it, I thought continually of an artist friend of over 50 years standing, a Vietnam vet and painter living in southern Indiana whose works often refer to that era. Like Rodriguez, his admirable creations have yet to find the audience they deserve. This fascinating documentary gives me hope that they will.