Searching for Sugar Man | Director Malik Bendjelloul | Score: 6.5
Rock ‘n’ roll is as much about iconography as it is about music. We have these burning cultural touchstones that end up representing a hell of a lot more than wanting to hold her hand, doing the twist or please pleasing someone. The curious thing is how these touchstones can vary so much from region to region, establishing themselves in one corner of the world and nowhere else.
Which brings us to the early ’70s folk pop singer Rodriguez, a native of Detroit, who spun his tales of hard-scrabble sad sacks and local drug dealers into surprisingly affecting pop tunes. Virtually ignored in his native country (when asked how many copies of his records he sold in the U.S., his former label CEO replies only half-jokingly “Six?”), Rodriguez became absolutely giant in South Africa, home of Apartheid, where young people found themselves responding to this American troubadour’s messages of rebellion and counter-culture responsibilities. In ’70s South Africa, he was “more popular than Elvis,” as one superfan says, more popular than the Stones or even the Liverpuddlian mop-tops the rest of the world was in such a frenzy over. To quote one South African music executive, Rodriguez must have sold upwards of half a million copies of Cold Fact, his debut album alone.
Taken by itself, that’s a fascinating concept, but Malik Bendjelloul’s captivating documentary drives further into the cultural zeitgeist. Rodriguez himself was a mysterious figure, even in Detroit, often performing with his back to his audience, appearing and disappearing from events without anyone noticing. After two failed U.S. LPs, he was never heard from again, rumors running rampantly that the singer, despondent over his lack of success, committed suicide on stage — either by self-immolation or a single gun shot to the temple — directly after the conclusion of his last gig.
Obsessed with finding something — anything — about his musical hero, a couple of South African fans eventually took it upon themselves to fill in the tremendous gaps in their hero’s story. One began a website in the late ’90s, trying to track down any further information on the elusive figure, while joining forces with a young, striving music journalist who dedicates himself to “follow the money” and find out what really happened on stage that last night of the singer’s life.
What follows is less a ghost story, or a detective mystery, than a miraculous article of faith. In the Internet age, very little is unknown to us anymore, any artist in any form, no matter how obscure, can find themselves with a dedicated blog, facebook page or Wikipedia entry (trying googling “buddy holocaust” and you’ll get the idea), so I strongly recommend watching this film knowing as little about Rodriguez and his story as possible — and prepare to become enthralled.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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