Review: Searching for Sugar Man

A musician none as Rodriguez recorded a couple of folk/rock albums in the early 1970s, then was promptly forgotten. But what happened next?

How many artists have died over the years, unaware of their own fame or legacy? Too often we run into stories of influential musicians or writers or filmmakers who weren’t properly appreciated in their own time, yet struggled on creating and inventing anyway. It’s a little more difficult for that to happen in the Internet age, I think – access and distribution is so easy these days that pretty much anyone with talent can be sure that their work is reaching out to someone. But before globalization linked everyone with an outlet and a router, it was pretty easy for people like Kafka or Bulgakov or John Kennedy Toole to toil away in obscurity.

“Searching for Sugar Man” is not quite the story of such an artist. It’s an effective, brisk documentary with a story that defies expectations at every turn. It relies on an engaging, true-life narrative and a delightfully enigmatic subject, and offers a sort of redemption for all those lost artists in the form of Sixto Rodriguez.

Who is Rodriguez? Well might you ask. In the early 1970s, Rodriguez was an aspiring folk/rock musician, a singer/songwriter type firmly in the Bob Dylan tradition (he even sounds like a bit like a more tuneful Dylan, though still nearly as nasal). He cut a couple of albums that were well received by critics and beloved by his peers, but for whatever reason failed to catch on with the public. Rodriguez essentially dropped off the radar of the American music scene.

But as fate would have it, a copy of Rodriguez’s first album made its way (probably in the hands of one of his few loyal fans) all the way to South Africa. Proving that no one has any clue what music people will respond to (I’m looking at you, Gotye), the album spread like wildfire, instantly making Rodriguez one of the most successful musicians in the country, ever. His songs about drugs, sex and discontent caught South Africans at just the right time, as apartheid reached its apex and dissatisfaction was really starting to simmer. A whole generation of South African rockers lists Rodriguez as a primary influence for their decision to voice their protests through music.

But – and here’s the kicker – Rodriguez himself was never aware of any of this. Even decades after the fact, Rodriguez knew nothing about South Africa and South Africa knew nothing about him. In the 1990s, a reporter finally attempted to track down the musician, hoping to finally confirm or deny the wild rumors that had spread through the country explaining their icon’s odd silence. It would ruin much of the joy of this film to reveal every twist in the story, but suffice to say that this reporter and his colleagues were eventually successful in finding Rodriguez.

At that point, “Searching for Sugar Man” essentially shifts from a sort of mystery genre piece to a character study. Because we are following the Lost Artist narrative, we are not terribly surprised when Rodriguez turns out to be living in a house that barely constitutes a hovel in Detroit, but it’s the man’s attitude that is so confounding. We want “failed” artists to wallow in their despair, to see their art as a burden, to find solace in recognition. Rodriguez does none of these things. If he is discontent with his quiet life working construction jobs and eking out a living, he does a wonderful job of hiding it. Perhaps that’s why he wears those sunglasses all the time.

But no, we are instead treated to a portrait of a man who simply is that selfless. Who gives away what money he does eventually earn from his music to friends, family and his struggling community. Who loves renovating old homes, making uninhabitable homes livable again. Who ran for city council and didn’t blink when they couldn’t even spell his name right on the ballot. He seems unable to react to news of his South African fame with anything but bemusement. Does he have any regrets about his musical career? Is he angry at the music industry executives who almost certainly squirreled away the royalties he should’ve earned all those years? If he is, it’s buried somewhere far deeper than this film is willing to go.

For while “Searching for Sugar Man” is certainly entertaining, it’s essentially an extended cocktail party anecdote. There’s nothing here that makes the film particularly cinematic – it would play just as well as a cable documentary. It follows the expected format, with various gorgeous (albeit irrelevant) shots of the South African coastline and a gaggle of talking heads singing Rodriguez’s praises. A few animated sequences are intriguing but unexplained – there’s a certain atmospheric melancholy to them, but overall it seems like they’re there just because, well, there has to be something on the screen.

Director Malik Bendjelloul also actively avoids some of the trickier questions hanging around on the story’s fringe. For instance, when Rodriguez finally makes his way to South Africa to perform in front of sell-out crowds, his fans are almost exclusively white. Though he trumpets Rodriguez’s effect on the anti-apartheid movement, he never makes the distinction that the singer was purely a phenomenon among Afrikaaners. That is not to discredit Rodriguez’s influence, but it would’ve been a fascinating division to discuss. Bendjelloul also abruptly cuts off the only interview with any edge to it, a prominent music producer who professes a deep affection for Rodriguez but dances around the issue when the missing royalties are brought up. Clearly both the director and Rodriguez himself feel that the past is past, but it might’ve made for a more incisive investigation of musical fame if the film had further pursued a critique of the industry’s business practices.

While “Searching for Sugar Man” doesn’t quite pull off the impressive balance of brisk narrative and psychological insight of, say “Man on Wire,” it’s a quick watch and a wonderful story. And if anyone is worthy of having a few more people appreciate him in his own time, it’s a man like Rodriguez.

Now playing in indie theaters.

Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars

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