The story being told in “Searching for Sugar Man” is 15 years old, yet it didn’t become a documentary until 2012. Seeing as the film centers on a man who never received the fame he deserved until long after the fact, that’s quite fitting.
The story behind “Searching for Sugar Man” is not one of those totally unbelievable true stories, but it has that same power. Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul reveals this story just a little bit at a time, not giving you any sense of its full scope so that learning the simple truth is most effective.
The artist known as Rodriguez is presented to us as a drifter from Detroit, an elusive folk singer whose music and voice were praised by the producers of his two records, “Cold Fact” (1970) and “Coming From Reality” (1971), both of which flopped. We’re then introduced to two South Africans, music enthusiast and writer Brad “Sugar” Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom. As it turns out, Rodriguez’s music made it to South Africa during the boiling point of apartheid, and “Cold Fact” was equal to any album of any superstar artists of that same era, even though no one knew anything about him except that he supposed killed himself on stage. Segerman and Strydom both sought answers and eventually discovered each other — and Rodriguez.
Before we get into the investigation/search for Rodriguez, Bendjelloul paints this abstract, mythic portrait of the singer/songwriter and plays a number of his tracks, which indeed sound like they should’ve been famous in the early ’70s. We become fans in our way and become intrigued with the mystery of what happened to Rodriguez. When they do track him down, it feels revelatory.
“Sugar Man” turns out be an unusual underdog story. The elusiveness of fame is a major component in what makes it so compelling, in that Rodgriguez was almost an absolute nothing, but the more people who hear his story, the more supporters he wins over. His humility in combination with his raw talent is enough to persuade anyone to wanting to support Rodriguez and his music.
My only complaint with the film is an avoidance of the question “why didn’t he become famous?” It’s clear he had all the tools and some of the best in the business supporting him. Did he not get enough airplay? Did no one promote him well enough? The elephant in the documentary, so to speak, is that he went by Rodriguez, and Latin music basically didn’t exist at that time. Nothing about his music would tell you he was Mexican, but is it possible he hit a lot of barriers because of prejudice toward his name? One interviewee mentions his name briefly in that context, but the film doesn’t go anywhere with it.
Moving, fascinating and impeccably told, “Searching for Sugar Man” is a rare feel-good human-interest documentary that stands out among even the most meaningful and difference-making doc work being done today.
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul
Written by Malik Bendjelloul, Stephen Segerman (article “Sugar and the Sugar Man”), Craig Bartholomew (article “Looking for Jesus”)