‘Sugar Man’ a musical Cinderella story
“He had this kind of magical quality that poets and artists have,” says a Detroit construction worker of his colleague, a hired laborer. That colleague, the subject of the fascinating documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” had a past unknown to his co-workers: He was once a singer-songwriter and recording artist, known simply by his last name, Rodriguez. In the late ’60s/early ’70s, he was briefly hailed as a brilliant new talent – a sort of Mexican-American Bob Dylan (though to my ear he sounds more like Paul Simon). And then he simply disappeared; rumored to have set himself on fire onstage after the failure of his first album, “Cold Fact.”
Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul structures “Searching for Sugar Man” both as a mystery and an inspirational tale. In its first half, we learn of Rodriguez, seeing photos of him – always in dark glasses, as befits an elusive creature. We watch as the film follows the music to Cape Town, South Africa, where a bootleg recording of Rodriguez’s album caught fire with young people in the early ’70s. “Cold Fact” sold only a few copies in the U.S.; in South Africa, it went platinum (he was, the film says, bigger than the Rolling Stones in that country).
Decades later, finally learning of his unexpected overseas fame, Rodriguez resurfaced and toured South Africa in a series of concerts. One fan, greeting him, shows off a Rodriguez tattoo.
You watch “Searching for Sugar Man” at first fascinated by the mystery – what happened to Rodriguez? Where did he go? Then you become infuriated by its revelations of financial injustice. (Rodriguez, before the concerts, saw no money from his South African fame and seemed to live paycheck-to-paycheck from construction jobs; the proceeds from the album seem to have “disappeared.”) And finally, you’re touched and enthralled by this story’s fairy-tale ending, as a beaming Rodriguez basks in the affection he finds in South Africa on tour. He’s a musical Cinderella; once lost, now finally found.