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'Sugar Man': The true story of an unwitting celebrity

"Searching for Sugar Man" is a documentary about Sixto Rodriguez, a US musician who was unknown at home but a star in South Africa – where everyone thought he was dead. takes a closer look at a true story as fanciful as fiction.


“Truth is stranger than fiction”, a popular saying goes, and rarely has the cliché – originally an approximation of a line from Romantic poet Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” – felt more accurate than in the nimble and engaging documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” (released in France on December 26).

Even the pitch sounds farcical: a Swedish director’s investigation into a US folk musician whose career crashed before it ever got off the ground, but who, unbeknown to him, became an icon among South Africans under the erroneous impression that he was dead.

With most of today’s documentaries tackling weighty subjects like war, disease, murder, or politics, it’s somewhat startling to discover a non-fiction film with the narrative arc of a fairytale and the feel-good vibe of a mainstream Hollywood comedy.

But that’s precisely what 35-year-old Malik Bendjelloul, who previously made several short music documentaries for Swedish TV, has come up with in “Searching for Sugar Man”. It’s no surprise the film racked up prizes at the Sundance Film Festival last winter and is now a frontrunner for the best documentary Oscar.

Ignored in America, adored in South Africa

Crowd-pleasing as it is, however, the movie is also a story of dashed hopes and thwarted talent. We learn, through interviews with music industry figures and a few Detroit locals, that in 1970, a Mexican-American singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez released an album that drew declarations of genius from critics and producers alike – but the record bombed, and the artist receded into the shadows.

In a coincidental turn of events, the album ended up in South Africa, where it quickly became a sensation and catapulted Rodriguez into a pantheon of musical idols that included Bob Dylan and the Beatles. The singer, with his clear, mournful voice, acoustic guitar, and fiercely anti-establishment lyrics, provided an especially fitting soundtrack for the growing movement of Afrikaner progressives fighting to end apartheid.

But there was no media coverage of Rodriguez coming out of the US, the web had not yet put the world just a finger’s click away, and an international cultural boycott isolating South Africa was in full effect. Consequently, Rodriguez’s growing legions of fans knew nothing about him, and a rumour somehow took hold that the musician had committed suicide onstage back in Detroit.

What provides the film with much of its emotional suspense, as well as its well-earned uplift, is the fact that decades passed with Rodriguez (alive and in Detroit, making a living as a construction worker) entirely unaware of his runaway success in South Africa.

At a brisk, well-paced 80 minutes, “Searching for Sugar Man” uses talking-head testimonies, archival footage, bits of animation, and a soundtrack of Rodriguez’s music to take us on the rather surreal journey that brought the singer face to face with the kind of adoring fans and widespread recognition he never had at home.

Solving a musical riddle

To reach that point, much detective work is required. Bendjelloul zeroes in on two South Africans, avid rock enthusiast Stephen Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, who joined forces to solve the mystery of what happened to Rodriguez – and, in the film’s tensest scene, what became of his royalties from record sales in South Africa.

The director interweaves their story with that of Rodriguez’s stateside collaborators, who voice a sort of wistful bafflement at his failure to break through (or the American public’s failure to embrace him), before slipping a third narrative strand into the final act: Rodriguez himself.

When we finally see the singer, he looks very much the aging rock star, with shaggy hair, a weathered face, and dark glasses. But his life has none of the faded grandeur we might expect, and far from seeming jaded, Rodriguez comes off as remarkably serene: soft-spoken, at once matter-of-fact and sweetly evasive, and both amused and touched by the revelation of the fame he never knew he had.

Interviews with his three daughters and an adoring construction co-worker portray Rodriguez as still driven by an activist’s desire to defend the vulnerable (he ran, unsuccessfully, for mayor of Detroit), but also sustained by simple things: work, family, and music as a passion, but not necessarily a source of glory or fortune.

If “Searching for Sugar Man” is hagiographic, it seems intentionally so: the film is less about a man than about a myth, and about the experience of loving – and, to a lesser extent, being – an under-loved artist.

The absence of tough journalistic questions concerning why exactly Rodriguez’s music didn’t take off in America, why he dropped out of sight so precipitously, and his current ambivalence toward his quietly rising celebrity, therefore seems almost appropriate. What Bendjelloul has given us, above all, is a portrait of the artist as an enigma, eluding the public’s reach but enjoying a freedom to which this very fine documentary pays loving tribute.


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