Documentary reveals mysterious musician


The camera follows a car as it sweeps down a mountain road in South Africa, accompanied by the strumming chords of “Sugar Man” by Rodriguez. An excited South African journalist, Stephen Segerman, begins to relate the tale of a mysterious singer who gained success with an unexpected audience and the hunt to find him.

The tale follows two fascinating paths. The first through the smoky bars of impoverished 1970s Detroit and the other through socially repressed apartheid South Africa in a search for the man behind the music, fueled by rumors of a dramatic suicide on stage.

Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugarman” is more than the complicated story of Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American songwriter who never attained fame in the United States. It is a critique on the fickle nature of fame. Why was Rodriguez, whose music resembled that of many famous songwriters of the time, passed over? His dark, brooding lyrics adroitly reflected the social and cultural situation in Detroit at the time, but his music sold few copies in the U.S.
It was a different audience that appreciated Rodriguez’s music. The South African youth of the apartheid era, in an attempt to rebel against local social restrictions, listened to Rodriguez lament the situation in Detroit and found parallels half a world away.

A deft mix of lonely Detroit streets and panning South African vistas provide the backdrop for Rodriguez’s story, almost illustrating the difference in his reception in both countries. Rather than creating a new soundtrack, songs from Rodriguez’s albums “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality” are used to provide somber, dark undertones to the story.
By not revealing Rodriguez or his family until the end of the film, Bendjelloul preserves a sense of mystery and an aura of loneliness. The alternation between South Africa and Detroit gets confusing at times, which ironically serves to illustrate the confusion Segerman and his friends felt in their search.

“Searching for Sugarman” is an uplifting tale of unexpected success from an unlikely source. Bendjelloul’s artfully crafts film guides viewers through stories in two countries, often jumping between them. Rodriguez’s story is one that astonishes viewers accustomed to instant information sharing. In the Internet age, such a huge information disconnect is even less likely than it was in the 1970s.

For a thrilling tale of latent luck, “Searching for Sugarman” is the film to see.