Searching for Sugar Man, an intriguing and redemptive documentary from the Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, reminds us that success in music relies on more than mere talent and songcraft. Luck, timing and marketing are important, along with a healthy ego or a need to be known.
These latter variables are why you most likely have not heard of the idiosyncratic Rodriguez, a folk-soul singer who emerged from Detroit in the late 1960s, recorded two albums and then vanished. The 1970s plowed on into punk, prog and disco, with the world, or most of it, none the wiser to Rodriguez's streetwise and anti-authoritarian Chicano hipster vignettes, sort of a combination of Cat Stevens, Lou Reed, Sam Cooke and Willy DeVille.
Bendjelloul effectively sells us on the mystery man through his stylized renderings of the era's Motor City—when cars were still being made and there was a hopping music scene. The bars of the city already served as haunts for the MC5 and the Stooges. And late one frigid evening, in the industrial gloom of a club hard by the railroad tracks, inside the smoky bar, a couple of record producers were lured to the otherworldly keening of a figure they could hardly make out through the haze, singing with his back to the audience. The stories that accompanied him—how he drifted between homeless shelters, never holding a steady job—only reinforced his mystique. We can appreciate the enigma when we see the surviving photos of the longhaired, skinny guysmiling inscrutably behind dark glasses. With the aid of awestruck eyewitness narration, Bendjelloul's graphically enhanced renderings of this world—done with sketches, Super-8 film and a Super-8 app on his iPhone—impart a graphic-novel aura to the mysterious musician.
But you haven't heard of Rodriguez, right? Indeed, his first album, Cold Fact, bombed, as did his second, Coming From Reality. He was dropped from his label shortly afterward. It was said that he went into decline, playing a final, disastrous show and then committed suicide on stage in response to relentless heckling.
This is Eddie and the Cruisers territory, the fable of the lost rock 'n' roll genius we have been denied. But just as water will find a way to the sea, great music will find an audience. And so it was that Rodriguez's anthems took hold in ... South Africa. At this time, South Africa was politically and culturally isolated—it was the height of apartheid, Mandela was midway through his three-decade stint in prison, foreign artists wouldn't play there, and many South African musicians weren't permitted to perform abroad. Despite the international opprobrium, the white minority government was defiant, conducting brutal reprisals against the black majority and their white sympathizers. They also tried to suppress subversive messages in popular culture.
In this stultifying environment, South Africans tell us in the film, the white Afrikaner youth were looking for a musical standard-bearer, a soundtrack to their disaffection. Rodriguez's music, particularly a song from his first album called "I Wonder," became a generational anthem with its lyrics of idealism tinged by police-state paranoia (and was subsequently banned from the radio):
I wonder about the love you can't find
And I wonder about the loneliness that's mine
I wonder how much going have you got
And I wonder about your friends that are not
I wonder I wonder wonder I do.
So an obscure musician from Detroit became a voice of a revolutionary generation that purportedly bought close to a million copies of his records. (Whatever money those records made vanished into the ether of shaky international licensing agreements, failing record labels and bootlegging.) Rodriguez's songs couldn't connect with American audiences—an unconscious racism that refused to hear Latinos playing folk and blues may have been a factor—but his songs found their audience in a completely different context. The kids had little idea who this Mexican-American hippie was, and he had no idea of his stature in South Africa. The dots didn't start to be connected until the late 1990s, when two white South Africans went on a search for Rodriguez. If the filmmaker oversells the difficulty of locating the truth behind the myth, it's a forgivable vice of storytelling.
The film's revelations may not be terribly surprising, but what emerges is a portrait of a man even more beatific than we imagined. Despite a certain narrative sleight of hand, this Swedish filmmaker has succeeded in bringing a wonderful American story to the forefront. In a year that's seen two excellent documentaries about the Motor City (the other is Detropia), Searching for Sugar Man qualifies as the feel-good Detroit doc of the year.
This article appeared in print with the headline "International musician of mystery."