Gaining an appreciable level of success outside of one's home country is not an unusual feat. Just ask Alela Diane, a local singer-songwriter who can fill huge theaters in France while still flying relatively below the radar here in the States. What's stranger is for that artist to have no clue about his or her fame in some far-flung country until nearly 30 years after the fact.
Such is the case with Rodriguez, a Detroit-born musician only recognized in the U.S. by crate diggers and music scholars who revel in the darker recesses of the psychedelic era. His two albums—1970's Cold Fact and 1971's Coming From Reality—were flops upon their release, faring badly enough that Rodriguez hung up his guitar seemingly for good around that time.
In the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, freshman director Malik Bendjelloul reveals that in South Africa, a world away from where they were recorded, the albums were revered. Rodriguez's songs of personal and class struggle provided rich fodder for the burgeoning anti-apartheid movement.
Bendjelloul plays out the story of Rodriguez like a detective novel, adding pieces to the puzzle via interviews with producers that worked with the musician, as well as a South African record-store owner and a journalist who both worked tirelessly to uncover the truth behind Rodriguez's "disappearance"—the prevailing rumor being that he committed suicide onstage.
About halfway through Sugar Man, it is revealed that Rodriguez is alive, well, and still living in Detroit, working as a manual laborer. Once that is uncovered, the now nearly 70-year-old musician is sat in front of the camera. Only then does the film take flight. Up until that point, we are run through a gauntlet of slow exposition and breathless praise for the music and the man. Not that the raves aren't warranted—his music ranks with that era's best psych-folk—but the real meat of the film isn't even captured by Bendjellou's cameras. The heart of Sugar Man is in the camcorder footage shot by Rodriguez's daughter during his first trip to Johannesburg in 1998. Only through that lens do you get an unvarnished look at how affecting it was for the musician to finally find the fame that eluded him for nearly three decades, and how much it meant for his fans to bask in his glow, if only for one night. PG-13.
Critic's Grade: B-
SEE IT: Searching for Sugar Man opens Friday at Fox Tower.