He emerged from late-1960s Detroit as a ready-for-mythologizing troubadour, boasting a voice like Cat Stevens and a songwriting style reminiscent of Bob Dylan. He went by the name Rodriguez — just Rodriguez — and, chances are, you’ve never heard of him. Hell, I was a professional music critic at the time and I never heard of him.
That’s because, despite his considerable talent, and despite earning the respect of those in the industry who worked with him on his two long-forgotten studio albums, Rodriguez’ music career never took off with the American public.
For that, you can blame his painful shyness (he was known to perform with his back to the audience) or you can write it all off to some sort of poor planetary alignment. Whatever the reason, Rodriguez — the fascinating subject of the irresistible and inspirational Searching for Sugar Man, part music documentary, part quest, part homage to artists everywhere — had for decades been merely a footnote in American music history.
But as it turns out, an ocean away, unbeknown to most Americans — and least of all to the man himself — the international man of mystery known as Rodriguez was becoming a cultural phenomenon in South Africa.
"In the mid-‘70s if you walked into a random white, liberal middle-class household that had a turntable and a pot of pop records, and if you flipped through the records you would always see Abbey Road by The Beatles, you would always see Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel — and you would always see Cold Fact by Rodriguez," says Steven Sederman, a longtime fan whose unbridled curiosity and thirst for answers W — coupled with that of journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom — provides the fuel for director Mike Bendjelloul’s film. "To us it was one of the most famous records of all times. The message it had was, ‘Be anti-establishment.’"
To this day in South Africa, Rodriguez is — without exaggeration — bigger than Elvis. Part of his popularity there came from the way his music spoke to a population in the throes of its fight against Apartheid and the resulting national self-analysis. Part of it also was in the fact that the South African government banned some of his songs from radio airplay — making it that much more delicious to the country’s naturally rebellious youth.
As important as anything else, though, was the air of intrigue surrounding this mysterious musician, this quiet genius.
"The thing was, we didn’t know who this guy was," Sederman said. "All our other rock stars, we had all the information we needed. But this guy? There was nothing. Then we found out that he had committed suicide. He set himself alight onstage and burned to death in front of the audience. It was the most incredible thing. It wasn’t just a suicide, it was probably the most grotesque suicide in rock history."
But so many questions remained unanswered. Where did Rodriguez come from? Where did he draw his inspiration from? And, most of all, why did he end it all the way he did — if that rumor was even, indeed, true?
Those are the questions at the center of Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man, a highly entertaining musical mystery tour that unfolds with the pacing and the allure of a well-told rock ‘n’ roll fairy tale. Benjelloul’s film won the Oscar this year for feature documentary.
At its start, it pretends to be a conventional music doc, though one boasting above-average artistic flourishes, such as brief and wonderfully restrained animated sequences. Then, a third of the way through, it shifts gears and becomes an irresistible detective story. By the time it’s finished, thanks to a wonderfully played twist, Sugar Man becomes the sweetest kind of documentary: a meaningful and inspirational tribute to unrecognized genius everywhere.
After all, Rodriguez is by no means the only artist who — thanks to bad breaks and uncontrollable circumstances — didn’t get the recognition he deserved. There are thousands out there with stories like his — tens of thousands, even — although perhaps not quite as dramatic. One gets the feeling, though, that his story — the details of which are difficult to discuss without giving anything away — had to play out the way that it did.
Bendjelloul gets that, and he makes the most of it. Perhaps his most masterful stroke in his Sundance-decorated film is the way he gets his audience so emotionally invested in the story of a man most had never heard of before. Part of that is because Rodriguez’ tale is such an inspirational one, but part of it also is that Benjelloul packages it in such an embraceable and entertaining way.
Recently, in a fit of pique and overgeneralization, I dismissively told a fellow movie fan that music documentaries are all the same. So many of them follow such a strict formula, I said — with full knowledge that I was overstating things, but no desire to temper myself — that if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.
Two days later, I saw Searching for Sugar Man, and it was all that was necessary to remind me that generalization is a fool’s pursuit — and that all music docs are not created equal. Yes, some are formulaic. But some are beautiful, some are singular, some are marvels of storytelling.
And some, like Searching for Sugar Man, are all three.