As presented in Searching for Sugar Man, an engrossing new documentary, Sixto Rodriguez was a mystery and an enigma – a Mexican American singer-songwriter who emerged from the slums of Detroit in the late Sixties whose intelligent, socially conscious lyrics drew comparisons to Bob Dylan but who vanished after two albums, leaving behind perplexing tales about what had happened to him.
He shot himself in the head on stage, one story went. Others heard, just as convincingly, that Rodriguez had doused himself with gasoline during a performance and set himself on fire. The only thing anyone knew for sure was that he was gone. And, outside of South Africa, nobody seemed to care.
In South Africa, Rodriguez was bigger than Elvis, bigger than the Rolling Stones.
Nobody know how the first copy of Cold Facts, his first album, found its way to the then-chillingly repressive country, but it caught on among the nation’s restless youth and helped fuel anti-apartheid fires. As one musician says in the documentary, in the 1970s, he could walk into the home of anyone he knew and find at least one album by the Beatles, one by Simon and Garfunkle and Cold Facts, by Sixto Rodriguez.
This odd reality is one of the most intriguing aspects of Searching for Sugar Man (the title is both a reference to a Rodriguez song and to a South African music store owner whose last name – Segerman – was often mispronounced during the era as homage to the song).
The movie also is a detective story, a search to find out what really happened to Rodriguez.
It’s impossible to write this without revealing that Rodriguez wasn’t dead. Tracked down in Detroit by Segerman and by a South African music journalist, the singer was working construction, just as he had been doing before he made his two albums. His coworkers knew nothing of his music. Rodriguez returned to South Africa in 1998 for a series of sold-out concerts. He was a pop star, at last.
This, then, is an inspirational story, and a moving one. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul, a Swedish filmmaker, the movie is beautiful to look at (and listen to) and often is riveting, but it could be tighter, and it leaves many questions unanswered.
For one thing, the action stops in 1998. Though we’re told that Rodriguez has returned several times to South Africa to give successful concerts, it seems he mostly continues to do manual labor in Detroit, barely getting by. I would like to have seen more transparency about the filmmaking. Why is the story just now being told? The commercial reasons to structure it this way are clear, but why does the film simply ignore the last 13 years?
The movie includes an interview with a record company executive who starts out speaking glowingly of Rodriguez but who turns nasty when the subject turns to money. What happened to the millions of dollars in royalties that apparently are due to Rodriguez from his sales in South Africa, sales that he knew nothing about?
And then there is the question that the movie begins with: Who is Rodriguez?
We hear plenty of his wonderful music. You leave the theater wanting to hear more, wanting to know more about him. He is, we sense, an elusive figure in life. More than once, he is referred to as a wise man, a prophet. He seems to be more than a little eccentric.
More of him needs to be in his movie.