- Rated NR
All photos © Sony Pictures Classics
Reviewed by Ezra Stead
opularity, not to mention its evil twin fame, is a strange and unpredictable thing. Oftentimes, artists became much more well-known and beloved far from their own homelands, in other countries. A good example of this phenomenon is the immense popularity of the poets and jazz musicians of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance overseas in Paris. An even better example is the 1970s folk-rock musician and songwriter Rodriguez, who sold very few copies of his two albums in his native United States but became an almost unprecedented cultural phenomenon in South Africa, where he is, according to some, even bigger than Elvis.
Malik Bendjelloul's new documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” explores this elusive star and the long quest of a few interested parties, such as music writer Craig Bartholomew-Strydom and record store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, to track down his whereabouts. With rumors of his death – ranging from onstage suicide to the standard rock star drug overdose – circulating throughout his massive South African fanbase, this was no easy task. Before delving into the search for Rodriguez and its results, the film introduces the man's music and legend. Perhaps his best known song, “Sugar Man,” was banned in 1970s South Africa, where apartheid held sway and the government routinely censored popular records and other forms of entertainment. In fact, Rodriguez' entire first album, Cold Fact, was banned at the time and subsequently circulated via cassette dubs brought in from outside the country, but it was two bars near the beginning of the song that especially incensed the repressive government: “Silver magic ships you carry / Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane.”
Of course, the government's censorship of the record only made fans love Rodriguez more, and his other songs also became the soundtrack of the growing resistance movement. His closest counterpart in American music of the time was Bob Dylan, and while he went largely unrecognized in his own country, he became a folk hero of roughly that magnitude in South Africa. As “Searching for Sugar Man” documents, he was eventually found, alive and well, in the same Detroit neighborhood where he has lived for almost 40 years, completely unaware of his massive fame across the ocean.Rodriguez is a profoundly simple man who, even when he is brought to South Africa to play sold-out venues for crowds of up to 20,000 people, refuses many of the creature comforts of stardom. For example, instead of sleeping on the king-sized bed provided for him in the hotel, he would curl up on a love seat, hating the idea of a maid having to make the bed because of him. He is a highly unusual and fascinating human being, and “Searching for Sugar Man” is a very interesting look at his life, his music, and the strange, fickle nature of fame.