South African record shop owner Stephen Segerman is driving along the winding coast of Cape Town, Africa. His favorite song’s playing: “Sugar Man” by a folk-rock legend named Rodriguez.
As the legend goes, Rodriguez committed suicide at one of his concerts: sang one last song called “Forget It” and shot his brains out. It’s a great story, but the one Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul weaves is more fantastical.
Bendjelloul’s debut documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, investigates the tall tales surrounding Sixto Rodriguez. The first hour of his Oscar-winning feature-length documentary builds up the mystery surrounding the man. Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singer/songwriter from Detroit, always wore sunglasses, and sometimes a dark hat, shrouding his dark, shoulder-length hair. When the producers (Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore) of his first studio album, Cold Fact (1970), heard his voice, they were in a smoky bar where they never saw his face.
“We thought he was the inner-city poet,” one of his producers says.
Steve Rowland, who produced Rodriguez’s second album, Coming from Reality (1971), for Light in the Attic Records, credits Rodriguez for writing and singing the saddest song he’s ever heard: “Cause,” about a man losing his job two weeks before Christmas.
Rowland doesn’t miss the song’s ironic premonition. Coming from Reality was released in November 1971; but two weeks before Christmas, Rodriguez found out his album wasn’t selling. He lost his job and shelved his music career for a life in construction.
That’s all a sidebar to the real excitement of the documentary — in the winding coastal city of Cape Town, Africa. While U.S. album sales never picked up during the ’70s, Rodriguez was becoming quite a name in South Africa, where an estimated half a million albums were sold.
White South Africans credit Rodriguez’s working class songs as “the soundtrack to revolution.” That, combined with the fact that his records were banned during the apartheid, made Cold Fact as obscene as porn, which naturally, spread its popularity. Rodriguez became a household name, next to music greats like Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel.
Segerman set up a website featuring Rodriguez’s face on a milk carton. After music journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom tracked Rodriguez, then 56, in Detroit, and published a widely circulated article about his and Segerman’s search, Rodriguez’s eldest daughter, Eva, saw the site and connected with Segerman. Her response: “Yes, I know this man! He’s my dad!”
Not long after Segerman talked to Eva, he received an unexpected phone call from Rodriguez. That’s how Rodriguez discovered his South African fame.
Searching for Sugar Man is a true modern fairy tale. Rodriguez, a mysterious but humble man, gets his “happily ever after” in 1998, years after he gave up on his albums. Sure, the plot sounds ridiculous, but Hollywood has prepared us to swallow the unbelievable. We root for the underdogs. We want those happily ever afters. And Searching for Sugar Man has that familiar narrative arch.
But Bendjelloul’s 2012 documentary doesn’t carry the story past 1998. Sure, we know that Rodriguez toured in South Africa, and that he still lives in Detroit as a part-time construction worker, but where has Rodriguez been in the 2000s? Despite making Rodriguez a household name in America as well as South Africa, Searching for Sugar Man seems outdated, lacking the epilogue. After all, Rodriguez will turn 71 this July. What happened in those years in between?
If you’ve never heard of Sixto Rodriguez, much less his music, the film does provide a sampling of both. Searching for Sugar Man takes the listener through more than a dozen Rodriguez songs, including “Sugar Man,” “I Wonder,” “This Is A Song, It’s An Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues,” “Inner City Blues,” and “I’ll Slip Away.”
His songs strike a chord with the common man. Rodriguez’s “Sugar Man” is like Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”; they’re both cures for the weary. “I Wonder” was the teenaged anthem for those growing up in 1970 South Africa — its most scandalous line that spread the song’s popularity: “I wonder/ how many times you had sex.” The song’s steady bass line is jazzy and soothing, even as Rodriguez sings about societal problems from loneliness to war and hatred.
Searching for Sugar Man may be fantastical, but it connects with the everyman. After all, doesn’t everyone secretly wish he or she were secretly rock stars?