“Searching for Sugar Man,” Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s buzz-heavy documentary about the rediscovery of underground rocker Rodriguez, tells a story that seems almost too good to be true – which might even be the case. But it’s a pretty amazing tale nevertheless, a real-life version of the long-lost-shaman/rocker myth (see: 1983’s “Eddie and the Cruisers”).
The film centers on Sixto Rodriguez, a Rip Van Winkle figure who took a shot at stardom during the Woodstock era. His two albums, 1970’s “Cold Fact” and 1971’s “Coming From Reality,” were lushly produced folk-rock, as sonically whimsical as Donovan with a Dylan-style shot of politicized lyrics.
While neither album sold in America, they somehow caught on in South Africa, of all places. By the film’s account, Rodriguez was the toast of white South African liberals during the apartheid era. One South African musician goes so far as to call Rodriguez’s music “the soundtrack of our lives.”
Even though Rodriguez’s albums sold hundreds of thousands of copies in South Africa, no one there knew anything about the man himself. A grisly tale of his committing suicide onstage was repeated often enough to be accepted as fact.
But Rodriguez was very much alive all this time, living and working blue-collar jobs in Detroit, oblivious of his far-off fame. He ran for office unsuccessfully at one point, and his co-workers remember him doing things like dressing up to do construction work. Even as a day laborer, the man was a star.
As “Sugar Man” recounts, a pair of South African fans – record store owner Stephen Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom – took to sleuthing and tracked him down in the late 1990s. And here is where the film might be taking a few dramatic liberties.
While “Sugar Man” leaves the impression that Rodriguez’s music career was essentially over by 1972, he was well-known enough to have played tours of Australia in 1979 and 1981. There’s no mention of this, and it’s very possible that Rodriguez wasn’t quite as obscure at his time of rediscovery as the film makes him out to be.
That caveat aside, “Searching for Sugar Man’s” story of redemption will warm even the coldest heart. Rodriguez remains a highly enigmatic figure, which the film’s sequence (in which you don’t see the present-day version until well past the halfway point, 49 minutes in) plays up. He comes across as quite the Zen master, as comfortable with his belated fame as he was with his previous obscurity.
After Rodriguez’s South African fans tracked him down, they brought him over for a tour in 1998. The deep emotion of the first show, for a capacity crowd in a large hall, is incredible to witness, even on shaky home-movie footage. And there is something both heartbreaking and redemptive in watching his daughters talk about it on-camera. Even years after the fact, their voices still quaver with bittersweet emotion.
The film’s epilogue says that Rodriguez gave away most of the financial windfall from his South African rediscovery to family and friends, and that he still lives a modest existence in the same house in downtown Detroit where he’s lived for 40 years. But he’s richer than most –just not in a way that will show up in a bank balance.
Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat