Like Shut Up Little Man!, Searching for Sugar Man recalls a pre-internet era, when we couldn’t just leap on a computer and figure out what happened to has-been celebrities with a few mouse clicks. Like that documentary, it also explores how media going “viral” is not exclusive to our digital society, and not only that, but Rodriguez — the 1970s musician who is the “Sugar Man” being searched for in the title — might be the biggest viral star in history. After all, it’s possible that he inspired a world-changing political moment.
Searching for Sugar Man is the story of Rodriguez, and it was a movie I really wanted to see during this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, but I unfortunately couldn’t make it happen because of scheduling. But I got a chance to see it in advance of its July 27 limited release, and I’m glad I did. Though it has some issues, Searching for Sugar Man is one of the best music documentaries I have ever seen.
Rodriguez is a singer/songwriter whose haunting music didn’t make any impact of note upon its release in Rodriguez’s native U.S. Little was known of Rodriguez, who even looks like a phantom in vintage photographs, though the producers of his only two albums compared him on an artistic level to Bob Dylan, and his music is certainly reminiscent of early Bob Dylan. In fact, Steven Rowland, the producer of Rodriguez’s second album, appears flat-out angry that Rodriguez never received recognition in the United States. However, as much as Rodriguez was unknown in the United States, he was worshiped in South Africa — for reasons that aren’t clear, his music took off there and Rodriguez became bigger than Elvis in in Apartheid South Africa, and some South Africans even credit Rodriguez’s music (and the government’s subsequent banning of his anti-establishment songs) as inspiration for the movement that eventually toppled Apartheid. It is estimated that Rodriguez’s first album sold half a million copies in South Africa.
But being behind the wall of Apartheid meant that South Africans had no knowledge of Rodriguez’s status, nor did Rodriguez have any knowledge of his album’s success in that country. In fact, it was generally accepted that he had killed himself on stage in a variety of gruesome manners. Of course, the truth was far worse: in the late 1990s Rodriguez was discovered to be alive and well and living in Detroit (I kid, Motown!) I know that might be ruining the doc’s big surprise, but considering Rodriguez was advertised as a special guest at the Tribeca screenings I think it’s not much of a surprise. The documentary covers where Rodriguez had been for the previous two decades, and how he was received when he finally toured South Africa in 1998.
Unfortunately, the documentary doesn’t tell the whole story. Rodriguez actually performed internationally up until 1981, and even recorded a live album in 1979 during an Australian tour — something the documentary conveniently forgets to mention in order to add more mystery. In fact, we don’t learn much about Rodriguez from his life between 1998 to 2012 until the final title cards, which is disappointing because the documentary actually slows down once we discover Rodriguez is alive because the big mystery that drove the documentary is now solved is now solved. Perhaps to add more to the mystery, the documentary ignores the numerous public performances Rodriguez has done (and still does) in his native U.S. I know the story is more about Rodriguez’s impact on South Africa, but there’s no reason to ignore these other developments.
But Rodriguez is one of those fascinating “characters” that could only come from real life. Now in his late sixties, Rodriguez barely acknowledges his Elvis-like popularity in South Africa and still wears his dark sunglasses at all times. His humility reminds me of another real-life musician I saw in a Tribeca documentary, Arnel Pineda in Don’t Stop Belevin’, but it goes even further because Rodriguez doesn’t even acknowledge his success. On the hand, there’s an obvious anger that arises in the audience because Rodriguez has never reaped the financial benefits of his massive record sales — a money trail that appears to end with Clarence Avant, a former Motown executive who was the head of Rodriguez’s record label. Avant becomes openly hostile when asked about where Rodriguez’s royalties went, and though Rodriguez himself doesn’t seem to care surely the audience does. But this thread is dropped — which is also unfortunate.
Director Malik Bendjelloul has created a captivating documentary, yet it still feels like he hasn’t found his whole story, as if he rushed the documentary into production before all the threads were followed. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing — as I said before, it’s one of the best music documentaries I have ever seen, and the fact that I wanted more from the story is a sign that the filmmakers did their job for the most part.
Rating: The type of unlikely story that couldn’t happen anymore, and should be seen by anyone who loves music (9/10).
Searching for Sugar Man opens in limited release on July 24.