Movie review: 'Sugar Man' documentary a deftly woven tale of mystery

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In the classified ads of life, nothing's more intriguing than the Lost and Found Department to documentary filmmakers. Pets and wedding rings have a way of disappearing. But how do you lose a rising music star whose records sold nearly a million copies and inspired a nation?

The MIA in "Searching for Sugar Man" is single-named Rodriguez, an obscure American singer-songwriter of the late '60s and early '70s. The nation he inspired wasn't the United States. It was South Africa, whence director Malik Bendjelloul sets forth to discover what happened to him.

In his brief heyday, Rodriguez never got any closer to Africa than Detroit. He was a folk-rock-blues balladeer in the mode of the day, with a haunted voice that seemed a hybrid of Bob Dylan and James Taylor -- with some Arlo Guthrie and Cat Stevens shadings. But his songs were edgier and his words more melancholy, and he sang them only in smoke-filled, blue-collar dives at night (with his back turned to the audience), working as a manual laborer by day. "There was something mysterious about him," said a friend. "He looked like a homeless person ... a drifter from shelter to shelter."

'Searching for Suger Man'

3 stars = Very good
Ratings explained
  • Starring: Rodriguez, Clarence Avant.
  • Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and some drug references.

A couple of Motown producers heard and liked and signed him for two potent albums, "Cold Fact" and "Coming From Reality," full of soulful laments about love, drugs, death and social protest. Tunes such as "I Wonder," the eponymous "Sugar Man," "Inner City Blues" and "Street Boy" -- with some surprisingly lush, "Sgt. Pepper"-like orchestrations -- were potential hits.

But if musicians had a dollar for every potential hit, they'd be uniformly rich. Rodriguez's albums garnered critical praise but scant sales, in the absence of promotion and radio air time. The sad lyrics of "Sugar Man" ("lost my job two weeks before Christmas ...") foretold exactly what would happen a year later when Rodriguez was quietly dropped by his small Suffix Records label, and not heard or heard from again.

In America, that is. Unbeknownst to the artist, bootlegged copies of his albums somehow found their way across the Atlantic to South Africa, where a particularly avid under- and above-ground following developed among the Afrikaans musicians of Cape Town. Songs such as "The Establishment Blues" struck a responsive chord and became anthems for the anti-apartheid movement. "Sugar Man" was banned by the government for its drug references -- one of the best things that can happen to a pop song. The film takes us to Cape Town's former Archive of Censored Materials, now a kind of museum-library, to view the original vinyl, preserved but surgically scratched over to be made unplayable!

Rodriguez's musical seed had fallen upon rocky U.S. soil but flourished in South Africa, somehow speaking to the apartheid situation. His mystique grew with the demise of his career. Depressed by failure, he reportedly shot himself in the head during a concert or died from a drug overdose. Nobody knew for sure.

Swedish director Bendjelloul relies on Cape Town record shop owner Stephen Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom to follow the clues, plus a mix of music, archival footage, interviews with friends, fans and Rodriguez's adult daughters. No mention of a wife. The albums sold big there; what happened to the money? Typically stolen by foreign copyright violators, right? Wrong. The honest South Africans dutifully sent royalties to his U.S. "representatives." The film features a fine "Michael Moore moment" with Motown boss Clarence Avant, who starts out very sympathetic to Rodriguez's plight but soon, when pressed about the money, angrily terminates the interview.

Rodriguez never saw a dime of it. Nor did he have any idea of his phenomenal popularity or significance abroad. This celebration of a man and his music moves slowly and ultimately reveals the man to be more fascinating than the music. His troubled songs seem to have emerged from an almost saintly tranquility and gentle artistic spirit, from something self-effacing and loftier than wealth.

Since the makers tell it as a mystery, so should I -- keeping you in suspense about what they found. Let's just say, Twain-like, that reports of the gruesome suicide were exaggerated. "Searching for Sugar Man," which won jury and audience awards at this year's Sundance festival and recently has been the topic of CNN and "60 Minutes" reports, is an appealing portrait of an enigmatic Age of Aquarian.

As pop-cultural mysteries go, Rodriguez's doesn't measure up to J.D. Salinger's (intentional) or Amelia Earhart's (unintentional) disappearance. But more power to him, and to his South African devotees, for the solution.

Forty years is a long time to wait for your 15 minutes.

Opens today at Regent Square Theater.


PG film critic emeritus Barry Paris:


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