History is full of musical artists who never made it. Maybe they never got signed or never broke through when they did, ending up getting dropped and fading into history; it's an old story oft told. But what if an artist's record became a massive hit on the other side of the world, influencing a nation, and yet he never knew of or profited from it? That's the bizarre hook of Searching For Sugar Man, the story of Detroit-based singer-songwriter Rodriquez music and belated (re)discovery.
Discovered by Motown legend Dennis Coffey playing in a waterfront bar called The Sewer, Sixto Rodriguez was signed and released a pair of albums which sold almost nothing and he was dropped in the early-Seventies. However, a copy of his first album, Cold Fact, made it to apartheid-oppressed South Africa and his Bob Dylan-ish lyrics and warm vocals a la Cat Stevens or Harry Chapin caught on with the people there, leading to bootlegs and then legitimate releases of his albums, selling an estimated half-million copies and influencing many upcoming Afrikaner musicians.
Almost nothing was known about the enigmatic mono-named musician, but legends of grisly onstage suicides that would cause envy in GG Allin (if that loser hadn't ODed like a bitch after threatening to kill himself onstage forever) cropped up. Eventually in the early days of the Internet (i.e. the mid-1990s) a couple of fans and music writers in South Africa attempted to locate him with little success until close examination of a lyrical reference cracked the code and led to the discovery of Rodriguez, alive and kicking, back in Detroit. You'll have to see what happens next and what he'd been doing for yourself.
While the first 2/3rds of Searching For Sugar Man are an interesting mystery even if you know how it turned out (fun fact: he used to come into a bar my girlfriend booked around 1990 and though he was known as a musician, no one had the slightest idea of his backstory), the last section seems to go somewhat flat when it should've climaxed. Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul lightly explores, but underplays, the vital question of "Where did all the royalty money go?" He interviews Clarence Savant, the former Motown CEO and owner of the long-defunct label Rodriguez was signed to, and while the inference is clear that he ripped him off, how getting paid would've impacted Rod's life isn't asked. Rod's three daughters are interviewed, but there's no mention of who their mother is. (I've read that she was interviewed, but then declined to participate in the final cut.) Most maddeningly, when Rodriquez is interviewed, he's left almost as much as an enigma as he was before he was found. You've got the guy sitting there; ASK HIM EVERYTHING!!!
As interesting a tale as Searching For Sugar Man tells, it would've benefited from a little less reverence and style and a little more hard-edged investigation.
Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.