Searching For Sugar Man follows the incredible story of Rodriguez, a folk singer/songwriter from Detroit, from about 1970-1998. His career in the States was less than stellar, despite being backed by some of the best producers in the business at that time (1970-73) who claim that his songwriting chops were some of the best they’d ever heard, deeming him the “poet of the street.”
Unbeknownst to Rodriguez himself, his first album, Cold Fact, had become immensely popular in South Africa, which at the time was in the height of the apartheid. It became a voice for those who were ready to speak out against the government, and through its free and uncensored attitudes, it inspired a life-altering movement for citizens of South Africa. His second album, Coming From Reality, sold equally as well, bringing his running total to about 500,000 units sold in South Africa.
Years passed, and Rodriguez became more and more of a mystery to his South African fans, who had no idea that Rodriguez’s fame was limited to their country. There was literally no information about him; no one had a good idea of what he looked like or where he was from or, the biggest question of all, how he had died. Many stories arose of Rodriguez’s horrendous death—that he set himself on fire on stage, that he shot himself in the head—but all were untrue. After learning Rodriguez was still alive, it took the dedication of a record shop owner and a music writer to find him.
The film is backed by some of Rodriguez’s best songs, and he projects a distinct James Taylor-Bob Dylan feel in his lyrics and acoustic melodies, with emotion welling so deep that you feel it right in your gut. The visual story is compiled through a combination of clips, using old photos and animated illustrations to paint the picture of Detroit in the ’70s, intimate and emotional interview clips with friends, family, co-workers and fans, home movies from Rodriguez’s first trip to South Africa in 1998, as well as beautifully shot scenic footage in South Africa and Detroit that help make a clear distinction between the two cities (and lives) of Rodriguez.
The big picture comes together by binding the strands of stories from both the U.S. and South Africa, each side knowing something the other one doesn’t, until finally the right people meet and pieces start falling into place. Rodriguez himself doesn’t even appear in the film until well into the second half, as he shuffles through the snowy Detroit streets, describes his modest life as a laborer and is slowly introduced to the life he should have had. He and his daughters are invited to Cape Town and are greeted with limos, photographers and a loyal legion of fans who fill six sold-out shows. Rodriguez, not fazed by any of it, slips seamlessly into his intense fame. For both he and his fans, this tour was better late than never.
Even after all of this, with the uplifting conclusion and seeing that Rodriguez is content with his double life, the question still remains as to how an artist like this could fly so far under the radar of the American music industry. When there are producers who have worked with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan saying that Rodriguez is just as good, or even better, than those icons, how could they not fight for him? It all remains a part of the enigma that is Rodriguez.
“Thanks for keeping me alive!” Rodriguez shouts to a crowd of thousands at his Cape Town show. That clip, the moment of collision into this new reality, shows that above anything else, this is a story about how music truly can change lives, of course for the artist, but also for those who can listen to an idea and run with it, who feel so connected to a person they know nothing about that it transcends even death.
Searching For Sugar Man is now in limited showings in New York and Los Angeles, and will be released on a wider scale later this summer. For New York cinema-goers, you can see the doc at the Angelika Film Center and at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, and to hold everyone else over until August, check out the trailer above.