“Searching for Sugar Man” is so satisfying on every level that, once you see it, you’ll want to see it again. It’s a documentary that plays like a fairy tale – a story that even those who have lived it continue to find barely believable.
It begins once upon a time in 1970 and 1971, when a talented young singer-songwriter in Detroit cut a couple of albums that went nowhere. The music people who signed him thought they had the next Dylan; they had worked with other huge stars and included this young man – who went by the single name Rodriguez – as among their best.
No one bought his records.
Spin the globe a half-turn, though, to the South Africa of the 1970s, where one of those albums somehow landed. It was a time of apartheid and censorship, when restrictions of one sort or another applied to everyone, black and white alike. Into this mix came an album of beautiful songs, protest songs, songs about oppression and sex and rising up and speaking out. Through bootleg copies and other distributors, Rodriguez’s records became the biggest thing in the country – as people we meet in the film say, he was bigger than Elvis. His albums became as enduring as “Abbey Road” and “Born to Run” – and no one in America, not his family, not his friends or his original producers – knew anything about it.
And no one in South Africa knew anything about Rodriguez. All they had were the photos on the albums, showing a handsome Hispanic man with long black hair and, sometimes, a brilliant smile.
“We didn’t know who this guy was,” says Stephen “Sugar” Segerman. “Then we found out he committed suicide. He set himself alight on stage. ... It was one of the most grotesque suicides in rock ’n’ roll history.”
Or he shot himself in the head on stage.
Or he died of a drug overdose. Nobody knew.
This movie, which opened the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Utah, won the audience award for world cinema documentary and a special jury prize for its celebration of the artistic spirit – and that sums up the film.
It celebrates Rodriguez, whose art found an audience of millions on its own; it celebrates the South Africans who defied oppression and censors to embrace the music; and it celebrates the spirit of filmmaking as embodied by the young director and screenwriter Malik Bendjelloul of Sweden, who spent years tracking down people who had known Rodriguez to tell his story.
Bendjelloul freely admits that the movie was, for him, a path to poverty, with some parts shot with his cellphone. He also drew the illustrations himself. But, as Sundance showed, this is a movie about happy endings.
Bendjelloul has a terrific sense of what and who to include in his movie, starting with the two South Africans who, in 1997, decided to try to find out what had really happened to Rodriguez. It is their story that first captured the director’s interest, and he follows it to the snowy streets of Detroit, where he strikes gold with people like Rick Emmerson, a laborer who worked construction jobs with Rodriguez after the musician was dropped by his record label. Emmerson’s ability to express what others saw in Rodriguez is a gift in itself: “He had this magical quality that all poets had,” Emmerson says. “Even though his musical hopes were dashed, the spirit remained.” And, he added, Rodriguez never acted like having to do hard, dirty work was a punishment, or beneath him: “He appreciated it like it was a sacrament.”
Meanwhile, along the film journey, we hear the soundtrack that swept South Africa.
South African writer Rian Malan is also eloquent in describing the outcome of the search for the man who wrote “Sugar Man”: “Because I’m a journalist, I know that sort of thing does not happen in the rational universe,” he says, and trying to revive his legacy isn’t even a good stunt, because, “It so obviously cannot be true. Who’d believe it?”
Then he adds: “But I was wrong.”
The end of the search, which we won’t discuss here for those who have not yet seen the movie or a “60 Minutes” segment about it, is only the beginning of another story that, as Malan later says, “remains too strange to be true. These are the days of miracles and wonder.”
“Searching for Sugar Man” is the kind of story everyone would like to have made about their own life, a story about how your actions can affect people, people you have never even met, in a positive way, even if you never, ever know about it. And, even if, someday, you do.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN
3 and 1/2 stars
Starring: Dennis Coffey, Stephen Segerman and the family of Sixto Rodriguez
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Running time: 85 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for brief language but overall not offensive.
The Lowdown: Two South Africans track down the story of a forgotten American songwriter whose music made him a superstar in their country.