REVIEW: Searching For Sugar Man, The Extraordinary True Tale of a Mythic Cult Music Hero Reborn

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Searching For Sugar Man, which tells the improbable story of how a singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez rose, fell, and found superstardom in what amounts to a parallel universe, is an elegy in several keys. One is clear and familiar: Upon his excited discovery by a noted producer, the music business circa 1969 ate Rodriguez for breakfast, and a talent still acknowledged by his peers went to waste. The second is more personal, and although Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul leaves a distinct and ultimately frustrating berth around the man at the center of his documentary, it becomes poignantly clear that an abbreviated resume and a family to feed didn’t keep Rodriguez from living an artist’s life.

And then, perhaps most resonant and abstract, there is the film’s charting of the confluence of circumstances that can create a legend and shape lives – a confluence whose particularities are less and less possible in an information-glutted age.

Sugar Man opens with much but fleeting stylistic fanfare. Over a blend of vivid landscapes, a steady-cam tour of bleak and snowy Detroit, moody recreations of key scenes and a neat effect that moves from image to illustration and back, various players (beginning with a Cape Town record-store owner called “Sugar”) recount the film’s heavily fragmented story of a mysterious musician out of Detroit who, South African legend has it, staged “probably the most grotesque suicide in rock history.”

Why “South African legend,” you might ask, and the answer is what takes Sugar Man’s story from sad but common to extraordinary. In many ways that story belongs to the men who stand in for what was apparently a solid chunk of the South African populace in the 1970s, when apartheid was in full swing and the country was under totalitarian rule. A hilarious origin story has an American girl bringing a single Rodriguez album into the country, patient zero-style, with bootlegs and label requests proliferating from there.

With sizable cuts from Rodriguez’s two studio albums of Dylan-esque folk rock accompanying them, those men (musicians and music fans) describe how songs like “I Wonder” and “Anti-establishment Blues” sparked something – a glimmer of rebellion, the comfort of fellow feeling – in them. Elsewhere referred to as an “inner city poet,” if Rodriguez’s lyrics lack a certain prosody they are written squarely and straightforwardly in the protest tradition of the time. A grassroots process that had to sidestep censors and a heavily restricted media helped foment a folk hero in the public's imagination. Rodriguez, we are told, is bigger than Elvis in South Africa, and certainly bigger than the Rolling Stones.

His sonorous tenor is sweet but strong and pleasingly clear – somewhere between Cat Stevens and Neil Diamond. Even so, the truth is that, though skilled and even singular, of the songs we hear nothing astonishes or even comes close; a couple sound too dated to be great. But then we’re not supposed to be evaluating his music for signs of greatness, not really. Perhaps under different circumstances, like the ones in South Africa, he might sound different; he would be different. Much discussed is the lack of personal details that fueled the Rodriguez enigma; his mystery was part of what made him great.

Bendjelloul upholds that idea, whether he likes it or not, after a rambling exposition of how a couple of amateur Cape Town sleuths finally tracked the very much alive Rodriguez down. Mexican by birth and extremely reticent by nature, Rodriguez is an uneasy interview; we learn more about him just watching his delicate form move down a snow-laden sidewalk like an exotic but flightless, black-coated bird trapped in a crummily ordinary world. Interviews with his three daughters are sweet but a little unsatisfying, and in its final third – which details his triumphant arrival in South Africa and introduction to an adoring audience of twenty thousand – Sugar Man falters.

Various threads of the story (including the rather major question of how an estimated half a million records sold resulted in zero royalties) are left to fray. It isn’t clear that the director recognized the most prominent among them: Bendjelloul is enamored not with the deeply organic nature but the novelty of this “instant” success story. And yet Sugar Man is most interesting when it touches on the conditions that combined to draw a cult hero out of some decent music and a generously enabled, imagination-firing mystique. I imagine even the wise and thoughtful Rodriguez himself would insist that more than one man’s third act justice, this is a story about time and a swiftly vanishing context.

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