What comes through strongly in the remarkable story director Malik Bendjelloul tells in Searching for Sugar Man is the inescapable repression that artists — and societies — suffer when dissent is discouraged. The folk-rock protest singer Sixto Rodriguez — born in Detroit to Mexican immigrant parents — may have bypassed North America on his way to the belated success the film both chronicles and engenders, but the damage that personal and societal repression causes was his subject from the beginning.
Bendjelloul plays obvious documentary games throughout Searching for Sugar Man, with the mysterious Rodriguez himself making his appearance only after his fans have spoken. A kind of musical detective story with its subject as payoff, the movie makes a case for the way art finds its own channel. Even so, the diffident and seemingly unambitious Rodriguez remains enigmatic. The exact nature of what kept him effectively sidelined in American pop culture remains unclear.
Searching takes as unlikely protagonist the Cape Town record-store owner Stephen "Sugar" Segerman, who became determined to find Rodriguez, the enigmatic American musician whose first album, 1970's Cold Fact, had become a huge hit decades later in apartheid-era South Africa. Inspired by a rumor that the frustrated Rodriguez had killed himself on stage, in a literal blaze of glory, Segerman and other South African fans began a search to find out whether he was in fact dead — and if not, where was he now?
The movie — which has become one of 2012's breakout documentary hits — has received so much media attention that revealing the search's outcome is no longer a spoiler: Reports of Rodriguez's demise prove to be highly premature. For the Detroit-born Rodriguez, who turned 70 earlier this summer, the film validates his obvious talent, which coexists with a gentle but pointed way with words and a very cool old-school hipness that has made him a great camera subject.
"We just did the David Letterman show, and it blew everyone away," Rodriguez says from New York City. "We had 25-piece backup and orchestration — put that in your pipe and smoke it. It was quite a spot, and I don't think I'll ever come down from that. Yeah, top of the world, ma."
Reaching the kind of audiences that were unimaginable in 1971, when he released his second and final album for the small Sussex label in L.A., Rodriguez has been transformed by Searching for Sugar Man in ways that he probably is still working out. As the film artfully shows — Detroit has never looked more wintry or more romantic — Rodriguez was a product of an inner-city scene that should have been perfect for Sussex to exploit, given the populist temper of the early '70s. Some of the movie's most affecting sequences simply show Rodriguez walking through the Motor City's stark, snowy, heavily industrialized landscape.
"It's been a musical odyssey," Rodriguez says. "It's educational and it's also enlightenment. And the thing is, I never dreamed it would get at this level — I was gonna make some records, I was gonna sell some records, and play bigger rooms. You know what I mean: up the food chain, like that. But this is like, the jumps are so huge."
In 1979 and 1981, Rodriguez toured Australia, where his records had been reissued. Released in 1981 in New Zealand and Australia, Rodriguez Alive has yet to be reissued in North America. Searching doesn't exactly suggest that Rodriguez was dormant between 1971 and 2008, when the Light in the Attic label re-released Cold Fact, but the missing years are the most intriguing, and perhaps were simply difficult for Bendjelloul to dramatize.
Most interesting is an interview with veteran record-business savant Clarence Avant — the entrepreneur who started Sussex Records, and in 1993 became chairman of the board of Motown Records. Among his other activities, Avant was involved in the 1968 sale of Memphis' Stax Records to Gulf + Western. Rodriguez's Sussex albums were issued in South Africa, where they sold upwards of half a million copies, but Rodriguez received no money for those sales.
Questioned for the film, Avant offers no explanation for that state of affairs. He takes issue with the idea that he could recall the circumstances of more than 40 years ago, but praises Rodriguez for his artistry. "Don't make me get emotional again, shit," Avant says, while the matter of what happened to the money goes temporarily by the wayside.
Rodriguez now says he has people working on the case of the missing international money he presumably has earned since the '70s. "I'm not the only one who got burned, but that was not the story," Rodriguez says. "Malik explains to me, that was part of the story. He was certainly interested in that part of it. It will be resolved somehow. But I didn't believe there was royalties, because I didn't believe the first part: that I was anything in South Africa."
As Searching makes clear, the impact of Rodriguez's fusion of Dylanesque protest lyrics and Arthur Lee-style vocals is as potent today as it was in 1971. Rodriguez, of course, made it to South Africa in 1998, where his shows — and his very presence — were causes for the kind of fascinated coverage normally given to rock stars. Rodriguez carries himself like a true and humble star in Searching, and it's to Bendjelloul's credit that he lets the man just be himself.
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