“Searching for Sugar Man” is a winning musical detective story about a failed, forgotten early ’70s rocker who became a huge success halfway across the world — in absentia, while presumed dead for decades. Recalling prior docus like “The Stone Reader” and “Shut Up Little Man!” in scrutinizing cultish legacies wholly unknown to their originators, albeit with a happier ending here, Swedish helmer Malik Bendjelloul’s intriguing, then uplifting English-language docu will make a desirable item in niche release through Sony Classics and in broadcast play.
The artist known simply as Rodriguez was a bit of enigma even before being “discovered” in the late ’60s by some music industry notables; those who’d noticed his occasional gigs in his native Detroit wondered if the elusive musician was a homeless drifter. Signed to former Motown Records chairman Clarence Avant’s Sussex imprint, he released two albums through A&M, in 1971 and 1972. Despite high hopes and good reviews that drew parallels to Bob Dylan, both sank without a trace commercially. His contract dropped, the singer-songwriter simply disappeared.
In South Africa, however, the discs somehow managed to find an audience before they even had a local distributor. Rodriguez’s hard-luck lyrics about urban life, bolstered by appealing tunes and a distinctive voice, hit a chord with young liberal whites living in the Big Brother bubble of the apartheid system (which banned his vaguely rebellious songs from the airwaves, natch). Over the years, they sold an estimated 500,000 copies, an extraordinary number that made him “bigger than Elvis” in the midsized nation.
It was believed among South African fans that Rodriguez died tragically — the most widely circulated tales being that he’d overdosed, shot or burnt himself alive onstage. Yet these rumors were entirely unsubstantiated, and indeed virtually nothing was known about him beyond cryptic hints found in the albums themselves. A couple of particularly obsessed types took it upon themselves to research matters further, setting up a website to draw any clues. To everyone’s shock, one of Rodriguez’s grown daughters stumbled upon the site, soon getting the man himself in touch with the worshipful public he’d never known existed.
He should have known: Royalties were paid from the records’ South African labels to the artist’s U.S. one. When the filmmakers interview Avant in Palm Springs, he grows belligerent and evasive at the suggestion that monies went astray. Just where they did go, however, is anyone’s guess.
Despite being yet another apparent casualty of the music industry — screwed out of his rightful renumeration — Rodriguez proves the picture of Zen composure upon discovering he’d been a “superstar” for years. It’s his daughters and co-workers who register proper amazement as the docu heads toward its moving climax.
Assembly is expert, with Camilla Skagerstrom’s lensing impressively capturing the ambiance of both Cape Town and Detroit, with deft deployment of archival footage (as well as brief animation segs) filling out the picture. Rodriguez’s music definitely bears further exploration for fans of literate balladeering.