A documentary filmmaker could make movies forever without coming across a more incredible story than “Searching for Sugar Man.” Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul, whose previous work has mostly been based on musicians, hit pure gold with this film.
The film made a considerable splash at 2012 Sundance, where Sony Pictures Classics acquired the picture. Now it falls to everyone including us critics to get the word out so the movie doesn’t fall victim of the seem capricious fate that sucker-punched its central figure 40 years ago.
That would be a singer/songwriter out of Detroit in the early ’70s known simply as Rodriguez. Make that unknown as Rodriguez as his first two albums bombed so badly his label dropped him, two weeks before Christmas which, incredibly — there’s that word again — was prophesied in a lyric from a song on that last album.
The first of the many mysteries the film attempts to clear up is that failure. The songs are damn good. You get hints of Dylan in his lyrics and vocal interpretations but Rodriguez writes the gritty truth about the city he knows. It’s urban poetry at its best and his voice has a pleasing lilt that fits the songs hand in glove.
Nevertheless, Rodriquez’s music career is a flop and the man disappears from view. Virtually no one in the business knows what happened to him — or even remembers him. Meanwhile, the album makes its way to South Africa, then under international boycott over its virulently racist apartheid policies.
Somehow — and this too is a wonder given the counter-cultural, anti-establishment attitudes reflected in much of the pop/rock music of that era — his songs more than any others resonate completely with disaffected Afrikaners, especially Afrikaner musicians. Rodriquez, unbeknownst to him or anyone in the music business, is a huge hit in South Africa. I mean HUGE.
In the film, Bendjelloul tracks down Clarence Avant, the former head of Sussex Records in Hollywood, which handled Rodriquez’s LPs. When asked how many people bought the album in the U.S., he shrugs and says, “Six. My wife and maybe my daughter … no, she was too young.” A South African record exec is asked the same question. He too shrugs and guesses maybe a half million!
Now understand this story takes place in the ’90s so it’s really close to a pre-Internet story. This could never happen today when you can track down anyone on the Web. So in South Africa, the only country that cares about him, Rodriquez is considered dead for whatever reason.
The legends about his death are all grandiose and gruesome. Mostly, they feature a suicide on stage in front of a disgruntled audience.
Then a Cape Town fan named Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, who now runs a record store, grows determined to track down the facts about Rodriquez’s death. And an American journalist, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, takes up a challenge Segerman issued on liner notes for a re-release of his album in South Africa to find out.
Guess what? The man is still alive and working in construction in Detroit, living in the same house for 40 years. Again he was hiding in plain sight, even running for political offices in Detroit so he hardly disappeared. As I said, this is pre-Internet.
I have hopes that go beyond this movie. My real hope is that, yes, the movie does well, but that rereleases by Light in the Attic Records of the music and Sony Legacy’s release of the soundtrack CD on July 24 will establish Rodriguez in the U.S.
You get why South Africans dug the songs. What you don’t get and what the movie is unable to clear up is why no one else did. His stuff is that good.
Bendjelloul treats the story like a detective yarn, even supplying music himself that gets the edginess of most mystery movies. I suppose this review has a few spoilers but since Sundance and, yes, with the Internet, no one is going to see this movie thinking that Rodriguez went out in a blaze of suicidal glory.
In fact, in a lesser movie, you might be annoyed at the number of times those interviewed express their sheer incredulous wonder at the story their relating. Fact will always outrank fiction in the amazement category.
The “Mission: Impossible” movies in the end all feel so very possible. “Searching for Sugar Man” feels absurd at every point. How can this be? But it is.
Opens: July 27, 2012 (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production companies: A Red Box Films/Passion Pictures Production in association with Canfield Pictures and the Documentary Company
Director/screenwriter/editor: Malik Bendjelloul
Producers: Simon Chinn, Malik Bendjelloul
Executive producer: John Battsek
Director of photography: Camilla Skagerström
Music: Sixto Rodriguez, Malik Bendjelloul
PG-13 rating, 85 minutes