Unknown at home, an unwitting star in South Africa
Time warps and parallel universes are typically the stuff of science fiction. But in the surprising, inspiring documentary Searching for Sugar Man, a self-effacing singer/songwriter from Detroit whose career went south right from the start in the early 1970s finds himself thrown into an alternate reality: He's a superstar on the other side of the world.
In his ramshackle Motor City neighborhood, Rodriguez is a freelance construction worker, and maybe a handful of friends remember the pair of albums he recorded way back when. A few good reviews, some club dates and press, and then nothing.
But in South Africa, where a copy of his debut, Cold Fact, was brought into the country and then bootlegged widely, Rodriguez became a legend. The album's mix of jangly psychedelic poetry and Dylanesque anti-establishment themes hit a nerve with a generation trying to rebel against the apartheid regime. Cut off from the rest of the world, these young South Africans embraced Rodriguez with the same passion they showed for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones.
Myths grew up around this mysterious, mono-monikered recording artist. Stories about his death - a suicide, on stage, in mid-concert - circulated. Other bands covered his songs. And all the while, Rodriguez went on with his life, doing demolition jobs and repair work, reading, hanging out. He may have gone platinum in Pretoria, but he didn't know it - and he certainly wasn't receiving royalty checks.
Malik Bendjelloul, a Swedish television director with a handful of music docs to his credit, first heard about Rodriguez on a trip to South Africa in 2006. A Cape Town record-shop owner, Stephen "Sugar" Segerman, told him the story, played him the songs. Segerman, a voluble character, is one of the talking heads in Searching for Sugar Man. Dennis Coffey, a producer who worked with Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, and the Supremes and recorded Rodriguez's soul-inflected debut, is another. Bendjelloul is on a mission to solve a mystery, and so he hunts down various figures with Rodriguez connections - record company heads, music journalists, brick layers, bartenders.
Beautiful and revelatory, Searching for Sugar Man also incorporates huge chunks of Rodriguez's music. These songs are striking: There are talking blues and moody, dark pop numbers that reveal an artist with a quiet rage, an outsider's perspective, a social and political conscience - and a cool, expressive voice. Bendjelloul uses animation, too, tying the elements together with lovely, loping visuals that evoke the funky desolation of Detroit back in the 1970s, the dive bars, the dreamy isolation.
Finally, there is Rodriguez himself, who, finally tracked down, appears both incredibly wise and good-humored, and seems to harbor no grudges, no regrets. His music thrived, unbeknownst to him, in another place, another time. His spirit, happily, is thriving still.