When a documentary begins by telling you that its subject committed suicide on stage four decades earlier, you don’t expect to be treated to a recently conducted interview with the supposedly deceased. Or maybe we should see that coming. Much credit to director Malik Bendjelloul for surprising this cynical and desensitised film watcher.
Searching for Sugar Man tells the remarkable true story of failed folk singer Rodriguez (failed in terms of becoming a pop icon, but certainly not in terms of creative or artistic acumen). A contemporary of Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones – and considered an equal by industry insiders – he never quite connected with the music purchasing population, and was later rumoured to have self-immolated at the conclusion of his final gig out of frustration. Some said he put a gun in his mouth in front of a horrified audience. It was also suggested that he killed himself in prison. The man eventually emerges to state, emphatically, that no, he’s still here.
Rodriguez’s album Cold Fact - and particularly his song Sugar Man - was a big hit in Australia at the time of its release. Sadly, that alone was not enough to keep the humble, hard-working Rodriguez from exile. It wasn’t until bootlegs of his recordings engulfed South Africa during the collapse of apartheid that he was finally – rightfully – regarded as a music icon. Bigger than Elvis there, two fans sought after the truth of his passing, only to discover that Rodriguez was in fact happily living in his home town of Detroit, working once again in construction and raising his family, thinking the dream of performing to be well and truly over. They bring him back for a reunion/resurrection concert, and, well, prepare for one of the most heart-swelling sequences you’ve ever witnessed in a music documentary.
Bendjelloul slickly intersperses Rodriguez’s crisp folk tunes, soundtracking scenes as diverse as a political revolution and someone trudging to work through endless white sheets of snow. The legend of Rodriguez is amplified to such an extent in the first half that you can hardly imagine what he would be like in person. When we meet him, his quiet, unassuming, ambling, shuffling self recalls a Dylan that never had to deal with the trappings of fame (for better or worse). Unfortunately, before the surviving Rodriguez is unveiled, Bendjelloul poses a number of questions that mostly go unanswered. For instance, the mystery of where the profits from his album sales in South Africa have gone is curiously left unresolved. But these are minor concerns. F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. With all due respect, Searching for Sugar Man proves that adage to be spectacularly wrong.
Searching for Sugar Man arrives in VIC, NSW, and QLD cinemas October 4, 2012.