Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Run Time: 1 hour 26 minutes, Rated PG-13
Directed by Malik Bendjelloulear
Talk about good things coming to those who wait.
In the fascinating music documentary Searching for Sugar Man, the life and career of the Detroit-area singer/songwriter Rodriguez is examined. Never heard of Rodriguez? You are not alone, fellow Americans. His albums came out in the late 60s and early 70s in the era of protest rock, in a time that made industry legends out of folks like Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel. To say he was a failure state-side is a huge understatement. But somehow, someway, Rodriguez found fame in South Africa during the time of apartheid where there was massive racial, social and civil unrest.
Rodriguez never knew that his 40 year old albums were worshiped in South Africa. Rumor had it that an American had flown over with a copy of his “Cold Facts” album, and it was pirated around until it became required listening. It seems silly to us, but ask any South African to name some of the most influential musicians of that time, and they will name Rodriguez before others like Dylan. One South African in the film laughs when asked if Rodriguez was bigger than The Rolling Stones…of course he was, with no question.
Rodriguez the man though, was shrouded in mystery. He caught the eye of some record labels in the late 60s as he performed in dingy, smoky bars in and around downtown Detroit. Sometimes, he performed with his back to the audience. Some thought he was a homeless man. Rumor had it that he had killed himself onstage by blowing his head off in front of the crowd. Others had heard that he lit himself on fire on stage.
Only legends get this kind of treatment. The truth was though, that Rodriguez was alive and well, and living in near poverty in the same house he’s lived in for 40 years. Through an outrageous and unbelievable sequence of events, fans of Rodriguez found him, and in 1998 this simple man was flown out to South Africa to play in front of a screaming, sold-out crowd…30 sold-out shows to be exact. Here was a living legend who never knew he had ever made it.
The story alone is deeply compelling and so crazy that it could only be true. The documentary chronicles this amazing story with also subtly introducing the audience to the music of Rodriguez. Quite frankly, the biggest mystery of all is how this performer never caught on, as his songwriting and crooning skills rival all of the other greats.
As a film, this is definitely a one-sided celebration of the man that is Rodriguez. We don’t get too many answers as far as the exact reasons why he was a huge flop in America. Was it due to race? Marketing? No matter, this film will surely go towards introducing Rodriguez to a whole new crop of followers worldwide.
In the years since his re-emergence, his music can now be found on ITunes and on CD. Seek out the “Cold Facts” album and a song called “Cause” if you need any reason to believe in this man’s talents.
We end up finding the musician who wrote “Sugar Man,” but we never really get a glimpse at what makes this eccentric man tick, or where his feelings toward politics and the world around him comes from. Still, sometimes the thrill of the journey well outweighs the destination.
Searching for Sugar Man is one of the best documentaries of 2012, in a year that hasn’t yielded too many of them.
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