I’d like to try a little experiment. I’m going to tell you about a movie I really like, “Searching for Sugar Man,” whose surprises, while worth discussing, are also worth not spoiling. So at a certain point in the review, I’m going to ask you to stop reading, go see the movie, and then come back. If you don’t want to play — or if you’ve read the many recent articles about the film and its subject and already know the score — fine. But if you’re up for it, humor me.
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul, “Searching for Sugar Man” is a rock documentary that goes way behind the music to tell a story that seems pure urban legend. In 1970, a Detroit-based folk singer who called himself Rodriguez released an album called “Cold Fact,” following it a year later with “Coming From Reality.” He was obscure before the records came out and, if possible, even more obscure afterward. Both discs sank without a trace, despite on-screen protestations by his producers that he was one of the more talented and singular artists they’d ever worked with. (Dylan comparisons are bandied about. But, for my money, Rodriguez sounds like a Mexican-American Nick Drake: hushed, intense, acoustic, private.)
Cut to South Africa, where the legend says a young American tourist brought over a copy of “Cold Fact” during a visit. The album did more than catch on; sparked by the track “I Wonder,” with its mention of casual sex, Rodriguez’s songs became a crucial part of the soundtrack of youthful white rebellion against a police state both literal and cultural. Bootleg tapes circulated, then the albums were released by a South African label and are estimated to have sold in the millions. One of Bendjelloul’s interviewees recalls seeing the same three records in every young person’s bedroom: “Abbey Road,” “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” and “Cold Fact.”
But where listeners knew everything about the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, Rodriguez remained a cipher — a black hole that resisted knowing. Rumors flew: The musician had played a final show and, disconsolate over his lack of commercial success, shot himself on stage. No, no, he set himself on fire. What did he even look like? As years passed, the more obsessive fans started parsing the lyrics for clues, calling American phone numbers late at night, comparing notes. Two men — a music journalist named Craig Bartholomew-Strydom and a jeweler/music fanatic named Steve “Sugar” Segerman — took to the infant Internet to collate information and ask for more. What they found was not what they expected.
All right, stop reading. Put down the paper (or the laptop, or whatever) and go see the movie. I’ll be right here when you return.
No cheating. I mean it.
Good, you’re back. Were the seats comfortable? Was the popcorn fresh? More important, how did you feel about the movie? For me, one of the sneakiest but most effective tactics in “Searching for Sugar Man” is the way Bendjelloul gradually removes the veils of mystery around his subject. We don’t even see a photo of Rodriguez for the first 10 minutes, and then the film slowly circles closer, as if wary of spooking the singer or his ghost. The journalist’s phone calls lead to one of the album producers, the jeweler’s website is found by Rodriguez’s oldest daughter, and then, in one of the great reveals in recent movie memory, we’re outside a house in Detroit and there’s a figure moving behind a window. The window opens, and, after four decades of anonymity, Rodriguez greets the light.
It’s almost a disappointment the first time we hear him speak — he seems too modest, self-effacing, almost simple-minded. Still parked safely behind his wraparound shades, the singer appears uninterested in fame. As we learn more about the intervening years, though, Rodriguez — his full name is Sixto Rodriguez — comes to seem increasingly remarkable. He got a philosophy degree and went into construction, gutting buildings in neighborhoods no one else would go near. Kept up his community activism and dabbled, less successfully, in local politics.
He has three daughters who adore him from various distances, but it’s a mark of Bendjelloul’s worshipful approach that we never hear from any ex-wives or girlfriends. There’s a lot we don’t hear and that Rodriguez isn’t telling — or doesn’t consider worth telling — and that’s a failing of the film. (As is its omission of the singer’s similar impact in Australia, an entire other chapter to the story.) And yet there’s more than a touch of the Zen monk to this man. You hear it questing youthfully in the songs and it’s serenely present today.
A tour of South Africa is arranged; the daughters assume it’ll be a small clubs and dive bars affair. It’s not, and part of the deep-dish delight of “Searching for Sugar Man” is watching a forgotten artist opening the door of his life to find tens of thousands camped outside. The final scenes of “Searching for Sugar Man” are both triumphal and profoundly comforting, because dreams don’t usually pay off this big. Even as you wonder how Bendjelloul is shaping the dream, you don’t begrudge Rodriguez. He’s earned whatever he can get, and this is overtime.
What he hasn’t earned is any royalties from all those record sales. “Where’s the money?” is a strand that snakes throughout the film, asked more by the daughters and the filmmakers than Rodriguez himself. The trail appears to stop at Clarence Avant, the head of the singer’s original label and an old man who turns belligerent when Bendjelloul presses him on the matter. The history of the record industry is long with tales of artists ripped off and profits mysteriously vanished, and after a while the film simply shrugs and gives up the trail. Someone made a lot of money off Sixto Rodriguez, but it wasn’t him. Touching the lives of millions will have to do.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.