It’s a standing joke in the music industry, an artist, frustrated by the lack of success in North America, hearing the consolation prize from an agent or record producer.
“But you’re HUGE in Australia” or Korea or Brazil or wherever.
At least somebody, they figure, “gets you.”
But what if you never knew that. What if you gave up your career after two failed albums, went back to your old life, and never realized you were “as big as Dylan” in say, apartheid era South Africa? The 1970s Detroit folk-rocker Rodriguez bombed in the U.S., but in sold hundreds of thousands of LPs and CDs sold in South Africa, his edgy, rebelious songs inspiring generations of folk-rock fans living in a heavily-censored police state. And he never had a clue.
“Searching for Sugar Man” is about the efforts of intrepid South African fans of the elusive Rodriguez, their years-long search for this artist who wrote “lyrics that set us free.” Rodriguez may have gotten lost in the post-Dylan Golden Age of the singer-songwriter in the U.S., when John Prine, Bonnie Laura Nyro, James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg and Jimmy Buffett owned the airwaves. But his albums, lush productions of immaculately produced songs such as “I Wonder,” “Crucify Your Mind” and “The Sugar Man,” sold and sold in South Africa, even if they were never officially exported there.
South Africans Steve Segerman, nicknamed “Sugar Man” all his life, set out to figure out who this mysterious figure was. His albums had few clues. He wore sunglasses and came off as a man of mystery. Legend had it that he’d killed himself on stage, which may have lifted his reputation and driven sales even further in South Africa. With journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydrom, he spent years “Searching for Sugar Man.”
The film, gorgeously shot by Camilla Skagerström, adds intrigue upon intrigue as the man’s producers, Motown music vets, sing his praises and scratch their heads over why he didn’t catch on. Then, as the searchers “follow the money,” the mystery deepens. Where did all that cash go? The film finds a Motown villain.
And then it finds the truth.
Using animation, grainy concert footage and picturesque travelogue scenes, director Malik Bendjelloul recreates this story and unravels the mystery. Some of it. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that this story has an uplifting arcthat suggests this isn’t the last we’ll hear of this forgotten hero of pop.
But there are frustrations in “Sugar Man,” and not all have to do with Rodriguez himself. The film’s first glaring omission is the lack of testimonials from the man’s peers, singer-songwriters who might remember the records and have appreciated their brilliance and maybe wondered “What ever happened to Rodriguez?” But perhaps there simply aren’t any who do.
The South Africans interviewed rather glibly distance themselves from the white minority regime which they say they opposed. But it’s a movie almost devoid of black voices, here or there.
And there are gaps in the biography, daughters interviewed — a wife never discussed.
But as musical mysteries go, tales of what might have been about a reclusive singer who had a hard time convincing his circle of acquaintances that back in the day, he had “been somebody,” especially in South Africa, “Searching for Sugar Man” is hard to beat.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and some drug references
Cast: Rodriguez, Steve Segerman, Craig Bartholomew-Strydrom, Dennis Coffey, Steve Rowland
Credits: Directed by Malik Bendjelloul. A Sony Classics release.
Running time: 1:27