‘Searching for Sugar Man’: Find it

July 23, 2012

The strangeness of truth compared to the limits of the human imagination gets a crystalline demonstration in Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man,” an award-winner at Sundance that lives up to the hype, opening in limited release Friday (7/27/12).

If you haven’t heard the hype – or if you haven’t seen the trailers for this film – then stop reading now after I say this: See this movie. Search for it. Make a special effort to find it – and don’t let anyone tell you its secret. Because – spoiler alert – I’m about to do that, though no further than the trailers do.

Put it this way: If “Searching for Sugar Man” were a work of fiction, it would be deemed utterly implausible. “C’mon,” critics would say, “that would ONLY ever happen in a movie.” Instead, Bendjelloul’s film is playing catch-up to reality – and what a moving and wondrous piece of reality it is.

“Searching for Sugar Man” starts in snowy Detroit in 1970, with a singer-songwriter named Rodriguez – a mononym for a fellow named Sixto Rodriguez, the son of Mexican immigrants. He was discovered and recorded for a label that was an offshoot of Buddah Records, which would go on to be a disco powerhouse later that decade. The album’s producers, including Dennis Coffey, a member of the Motown studio band known as the Funk Brothers, had high hopes but that first album, “Cold Fact,” and its follow-up, “Coming to Reality,” did nothing, sales-wise. Rodriguez became like so many other hopefuls in the pre-“American Idol”/Internet time (or throughout history, for that matter), disappearing without a trace.

Cut to Cape Town, South Africa, where, who knows how, a copy of “Cold Fact” found its way to teens, some of whom were engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle in those early 1970s. Rodriguez’s straightforward lyrics – about questioning authority – and his music (he has a voice reminiscent of “American Pie”-period Don McLean) made the album (and bootleg cassettes of it) an underground hit.

Eventually, someone found a way to import copies of the album – or produce them in South Africa, it’s unclear – and the album became a still-underground hit, creating , according to one of the witnesses in the film, a soundtrack of protest. Everyone, according to this observer, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, says, had a copy of “Cold Fact,” the way everyone of a certain generation in America had a copy of “Abbey Road” or “Dark Side of the Moon.”

But no one knew anything about Rodriguez – and the rumor was that, in despair over the state of his career, Rodriguez had killed himself onstage – shooting himself, by one account, setting himself on fire by another. But no one knew.

The film follows the myth into the Internet era, when a journalist (Craig Bartholomew-Strydom) and Segerman teamed up to post a web page, looking for any information on the actual facts of Rodriguez’s death. This was 1998, almost 30 years after the release of “Cold Fact,” but the web had quickly become the kind of place where all sorts of information became readily available.

And what they discovered blew their minds: Rodriguez was, in fact, still alive, working demolition/construction in Detroit, still living in the same house he had been living in when he recorded the album. So they went to see him, telling him that he was more popular in South Africa – still – than Elvis Presley or the Beatles.

With the help of his children, they arranged to bring Rodriguez to Cape Town, where they put on a series of sold-out concerts. “Thanks for keeping me alive,” Rodriguez said from the stage.

And that’s the beauty of this film: that it captures the resurrection of a dream. There is something so even-tempered, almost Zen, about Rodriguez that this sudden revival of a dream deferred, while obviously gratifying and fulfilling for him as an artist, doesn’t change him as a man.

There have been real-life cases of this – of actors or musicians suddenly given a revival at a late age. Most are unable to quite figure out what to do with this abrupt return (or arrival) of fame and attention that once had been their vision or their lifeblood.

Rodriguez, however, knows exactly what to do with it: He just keeps on living his life, though now aware that he is a musical demigod to a population that lives half a world away. It doesn’t change his approach to life or his view of himself. It’s a blessing, one he counts and is thankful for. Period.

A story like this seems so unlikely, so preconceived, that the documentary is the only possible place where it could have this kind of impact. Bendjelloul captures a wealth of genuine feeling – the joy of the music lovers at finding and helping their hero, the feeling of surprise and graciousness of the hero at being given the chance to finally do what he has always wanted.

It’s as gripping and compelling a documentary as you’re likely to see this year. But, unlike most nonfiction films, which tend to focus on uncovering misdeed and outrage, this one leaves you feeling joyous and moved.

Go “Searching for Sugar Man” – and you’ll come away with a lump in your throat.

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