Review: 'Searching for Sugar Man' unravels the mystery
The powerfully emotional “ Searching for Sugar Man” is a real-life magical mystery tour.
A musical detective story, this enthralling documentary — nominated for an Oscar — fo–cuses on a little-known American musician whose haunting voice and poetic lyrics were essentially unknown in his own country, but had a massive impact across the globe.
In late 1960s Detroit, Sixto Rodriguez, the son of Mexican migrant workers, was a lyrical storyteller, writing songs through the prism of his working-class life. When a former Motown producer heard the singer-songwriter perform in an inner-city bar, he was entranced, likening him to Bob Dylan. Persuading him to make a record, he expected to catapult Rodriguez to stardom. Released in 1970 and well-received by critics, Rodriguez's “ Cold Fact” bombed. A year later, his second album, “ Coming From Reality,” also flopped.
While uncompromising in his art, Rodriguez was never interested in fame or fortune. He returned to carpentry work and played the guitar only for himself, sinking into obscurity.
But, unbeknownst to him, a continent away, Rodriguez was a huge star with a mystique that rivaled that of Elvis Presley.
The way in which this fascinating story unfolds, as directed by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, renders it thoroughly captivating, often exhilarating. Interviews with those associated with his recording career speak with sadness of his great potential and lost career. Even when he had performed in the late 1960s and early '70s, Rodriguez was so shy he would turn his back on the audience as he sang. He did not seem suited for the rough-and-tumble world of rock stardom.
Cut to South Africa and a stranger-than-fiction saga. In the early 1970s, a bootleg copy of “Cold Fact” made it into the country and, shortly thereafter, hundreds of thousands of South Africans had their own copies. Rodriguez's protest songs, with their anti-Establishment lyrics, struck a chord during a turbulent period in which Apartheid was at its height.
“His music was the soundtrack of our lives,” said Capetown record store owner Stephen Segerman. “The three records everybody owned were: “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Abbey Road” and “Cold Fact.”
In the 1970s, South Africa's oppressive government and isolationism kept anyone outside that country from learning of Rodriguez's popularity there.
It would be a regrettable spoiler to reveal what happened when Segerman and the filmmaker delved deeper. Less is more when discussing this compelling documentary. Rodriguez's indelible folk/soul/rock songs provide the soundtrack. It's unequivocally a must for any music fan and anyone who enjoys a well-crafted edge-of-the-seat real-life thriller.
As it explores the spread of information and misinformation, celebrates genuine talent and re-affirms the indomitable power of music, “Searching for Sugar Man” is a gloriously uplifting experience that will leave audiences breathless by its conclusion
Claudia Puig is a movie critic for USA Today.