When 1970s Mexican-American singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez faded from view, he'd never had much visibility in the first place. Typically known only as "Rodriguez," the musician's gentle pop tunes and activist spirit came through in a handful of albums that were barely noticed in the U.S. However, "Searching for Sugar Man," documentarian Malik Bendjelloul's remarkable chronicle of Rodriguez's neglect on his home turf and unexpected stardom in South Africa, compellingly argues for his place in the canon of great American rock stars, whether or not he wants the spot.
Rodriguez's music gives the movie a masterful soundtrack and explains its purpose all at once. His lyrics grapple with the plight of the working man, but swap political rhetoric for personal yearning. "The sweetest kiss I ever got was the one I never tasted," he sang on his 1971 album "Cause," which flopped so badly that the record label quickly dropped Rodriguez from their roster.
Bendjelloul tracks these developments through a combination of testimonials from diehard Rodriguez fans and metropolitan landscapes to underscore the music's evocative power. But it's the South African context that gives "Searching for Sugar Man" its meatiest hook. For a quarter of a century — unbeknownst to most Americans, including Rodriguez's original producers — the singer landed a massive following in the country where his humanitarian outlook provided an escape for many disgruntled youth struggling under apartheid, elevating him to the stature of a "South African Elvis."
He was also an international man of mystery, since his whereabouts remained completely unknown to even his most devoted fans. Over the years, rumors subjected Rodriguez to innumerable fates. He supposedly burnt himself to death in front of a live audience… or maybe put a bullet in his brain. What sent such a soulful artist over the deep end? The answer requires an entirely different question: Is Rodriguez even dead?
Here's a spoiler for anyone incapable of running a brief Google search for "Sixto Rodriguez:" The South African Elvis is alive and well and living in Detroit, working construction and not seeing a dime for the hundreds of thousands of his records sold on the other side of the world. Bendjelloul's narrative contains an enticing mystery reminiscent of vintage Errol Morris for the sheer believe-or-not quality of his continuing obscurity.
The director makes a convincing case for Rodriguez as a phantom rock star, no less valid in its iconoclastic value than Bob Dylan, but never validated by the marketplace. "Rodriguez, as far as I'm concerned, never happened," a former producer sighs, but the truth is more spectacular: Rodriguez simply made peace with his professional failings, gaining popularity without the aid of industrial forces. His heroism happened by accident.
Before it indulges the conventions of a hagiographic music doc, "Searching for Sugar Man" takes the form of a cultural detective yarn. Bendjelloul lets the South African musicologist responsible for discovering Rodriguez tell his story with a passion that solidifies the impact musician's work had on a certain generation of South Africans. The politics of Rodriguez and his reemergence in the public eye, which culminated with a tour of South Africa in 1998, form the backbone of the movie but also hold it back from adding new information to the musician's story.
Bendjelloul intersperses talking heads and concert footage with shots of Rodriguez — who looks like a cross between David Carradine and Michael Jackson but sounds like Dylan by way of Johnny Cash — walking through his Detroit streets with no particular destination. That ambiguity is the film's central flaw: His mission and personal desires never satisfactorily addressed, Rodriguez inhabits a complicated world that the filmmaker doesn't unravel. If there's more to his drama than meets the eye, Bendjelloul doesn't find it. Still, that should not be considered a knock against the feel-good vibes that the movie establishes with the same enthusiasm that distinguishes Rodriguez's musical talent.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? An opening-night selection from the World Documentary competition at Sundance, "Searching for Sugar Man" is sure to excite music nuts for shining light on a much-neglected artist deserved of a second look. However, its niche appeal means it will belong with a distributor tapped into that precise base (Oscilloscope? Drag City?) rather than one of the major Sundance buyers with broader aims. Unlikely to perform well commercially, it may nonetheless find a healthy life with grassroots screenings combined with a live component if the musician comes out of the woodwork to support it.