Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s film is a mystical detective story. It is a documentary, the true story of protest singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriquez who had been handpicked by two Detroit record executives in the 1970s to become a superstar and follow in the footsteps of legendary Bob Dylan. Rodriquez’s two albums resoundingly flopped, and he ended up back on the streets of Detroit with no regrets, willingly doing construction jobs to support his wife and three daughters. Years later, a bootleg version of one of his albums was played at a radio station in South Africa; these ballads ignited into the protest songs of the anti-apartheid white youth. He was as famous as the Beatles and Bob Dylan combined. South Africa at the time was insular, isolated, and a pariah to the rest of the world. Little did his fans know that Rodriguez was totally unheard of elsewhere. They erroneously believed him to be well-known worldwide, but deceased.
This documentary retraces the journey of two South African music fans Steve Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom on their quest to discover what had happened to their idol Sixto Rodriquez. Heeding “Deep Throat’s” famed advice to “just follow the money” combined with accessing the wonders of the World Wide Web they were successful in their search. They found Rodriguez in Detroit, convinced him he was a star in their homeland, and persuaded him to return to sold-out concerts. If there is a villain in this documentary, it is Clarence Avant, owner of the Sussex label that had originally released Rodriguez’s two albums. When asked why Rodriquez had never received royalties from the 500,000 South African sales, Avant replied: “You think it’s something I’m going to worry about, a 1970 contract? If you do, you’re out of your goddamn mind.” If there is a hero, it’s the unassuming, cool gentleman in dark shades who liked to dress in a tuxedo to do construction work, the political activist who once ran for the mayor of Detroit, the brilliant singer-songwriter Rodriquez. If there is a winner, it’s all of us.
Searching for Sugar Man is a fairytale come true lovingly depicted in a feature-length documentary. It’s a masterful piece of storytelling where hope and talent triumph over all of life’s woes including racial discrimination, poverty, and greedy record producers. At the beginning, the audience barely catches a glimpse of Rodriguez other than in some old publicity stills and in an animated scene of the singer in a hazy, smoke-filled nightclub. In the first half of the movie the artist is almost invisible, believed to be dead (swirling rumors abounded of a dramatic on-stage suicide); the soundtracks from “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality” keep the myth alive. Later, when Bendjelloul finally interviews Rodriguez in Detroit, the soft-spoken artist remains distant and engagingly ethereal, his dignity always remains intact. (This is the self-effacing man, his daughter explained, who never shirked from hard work; she touchingly reminisces about him single handedly carrying old refrigerators on his back.)
It’s only when we see the videos of the ecstatic fans at his concerts in the 1990s in South Africa do we sense his brilliance, his magic, and yes, his triumph. Searching for Sugar Man is a feel-good movie where we can walk out of the theater believing that genuine talent is recognized, justice reigns, and that at least, just this once, the meek shall inherit the earth.