LITTLE ROCK Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man starts off with a South African record-store owner talking about one of his favorite singers - an enigmatic and political performer called Rodriguez. He released one of the best-selling albums in South African history, a record called Cold Fact that was ubiquitous in the ’70s, an essential disc in the collections of middle-class South Africans. It was as common as The Beatles’ Abbey Road or Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water.
But then, the record-store owner - Steve “Sugar” Segerman - tells us, Rodriguez “set himself alight onstage and burnt to death in front of the audience .... probably the most grotesque suicide in rock history.” What a sad and shocking end - straight out of a Hollywood B-movie.
Only thing was, neither Segerman nor his friends could confirm this morbid rumor. They couldn’t find out anything about Rodriguez. All they knew was that he was an American, and he mentioned “Dearborn” in one of his songs.
Turns out, Sixto Rodriguez was born and raised in Detroit, and, on the cusp of the 1970s, he was like any number of long haired, guitar-wielding young men. He gave music a shot, and it looked like he might make it for a while. He recorded two albums - and they both flopped despite the obvious talent on display. The men who produced them still don’t understand why, and more than 40 years later they’re still bothered by it.
But somehow, his music made it across the ocean. Maybe an American girl brought it in - it got passed around, people made cassettes, a commercially released South African version sold more than 500,000 copies. The South African government banned his music.
Rodriguez never knew. (Or at least he didn’t know for a long time.) He never saw a penny of royalties. He went to work. The people in his neighborhood knew him as a street figure, a walking man they’d see here and there. He did mostly heavy labor.
Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, he was bigger than Elvis - an inspiration to activists.
Eventually these worlds converge, though Bendjelloul cannily holds off the inevitable, letting his story unspool chronologically, through a mix of talking-head interviews, archival footage and a couple of haunting animated clips.
By the end of it, Bendjelloul has found his Sugar Man, although the mystery lingers. Rodriguez, once he emerges from the mists, appears to be a sweet, decent - and remarkably intact - soul. One wonders if he had achieved his rock ’n’ roll dreams, would his daughters have turned out so well?
Searching for Sugar Man 87
Documentary, with Sixto Rodriguez, Steve Segerman
PG-13, for language
MovieStyle, Pages 36 on 10/12/2012
Print Headline: Searching for Sugar Man