Movie Review: Searching for Sugar Man

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.