The strangeness of truth compared to the limits of the human imagination gets a crystalline demonstration in Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugar Man,” an award-winner at Sundance that lives up to the hype, opening in limited release Friday (7/27/12).
If you haven’t heard the hype – or if you haven’t seen the trailers for this film – then stop reading now after I say this: See this movie. Search for it. Make a special effort to find it – and don’t let anyone tell you its secret. Because – spoiler alert – I’m about to do that, though no further than the trailers do.
Put it this way: If “Searching for Sugar Man” were a work of fiction, it would be deemed utterly implausible. “C’mon,” critics would say, “that would ONLY ever happen in a movie.” Instead, Bendjelloul’s film is playing catch-up to reality – and what a moving and wondrous piece of reality it is.
“Searching for Sugar Man” starts in snowy Detroit in 1970, with a singer-songwriter named Rodriguez – a mononym for a fellow named Sixto Rodriguez, the son of Mexican immigrants. He was discovered and recorded for a label that was an offshoot of Buddah Records, which would go on to be a disco powerhouse later that decade. The album’s producers, including Dennis Coffey, a member of the Motown studio band known as the Funk Brothers, had high hopes but that first album, “Cold Fact,” and its follow-up, “Coming to Reality,” did nothing, sales-wise. Rodriguez became like so many other hopefuls in the pre-“American Idol”/Internet time (or throughout history, for that matter), disappearing without a trace.
Cut to Cape Town, South Africa, where, who knows how, a copy of “Cold Fact” found its way to teens, some of whom were engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle. Rodriguez’s straightforward lyrics – about questioning authority – and his music (he has a voice reminiscent of “American Pie”-period Don McLean) made the album (and bootleg cassettes of it) an underground hit.
Eventually, someone found a way to import copies of the album – or produce them in South Africa, it’s unclear – and the album became a still-underground hit, creating , according to one of the witnesses in the film, a soundtrack of protest. Everyone, according to this observer, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, says, had a copy of “Cold Fact,” the way everyone of a certain generation in America had a copy of “Abbey Road” or “Dark Side of the Moon.”
But no one knew anything about Rodriguez – and the rumor was that, in despair over the state of his career, Rodriguez had killed himself onstage – shooting himself, by one account, setting himself on fire by another. But no one knew.
This review continues on my website.