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Movie review: 'Searching for Sugar Man'

“Searching for Sugar Man” is Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul's splendid investigation into the life and times of a mysterious Detroit singer/songwriter named Rodriguez.
BY DENNIS KING Published: October 12, 2012

In “Stone Reader,” Mark Moskowitz's fascinating 2002 documentary, the filmmaker spun a literary detective story that eventually led to the rediscovery of forgotten Iowa novelist Dow Mossman and the republishing of his long out-of-print masterwork “The Stones of Summer.”

That inspiring documentary quest now has an equally fascinating and uplifting musical counterpart in “Searching for Sugar Man,” Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul's splendid investigation into the life and times of a mysterious Detroit singer/songwriter named Rodriguez, whose amazing story of fame, obscurity and resurrection is the stuff of a folk-rock fairy tale.

At the dawning of the 1970s, Sixto Rodriguez, the Detroit son of a Mexican immigrant, hit the folk-rock scene — sporting his surname and signature Ray-Ban shades — with two cultishly celebrated albums, “Cold Fact” and “Coming From Reality.” They were packed with spiky psychedelic poetry and bluesy anthems of social injustice and political protest.

But coming in an era when the record bins were jammed with Dylan-esque troubadours, Rodriguez's albums failed to sell, and he was soon dropped by his record label.

Having had his shot at fame, the modest, darkly handsome artist put away his guitar, returned to his rundown Motor City neighborhood and spent the next 40 years raising three daughters, reading widely, dabbling in local politics and earning a blue-collar living as a construction worker.

Meanwhile, half-way around the world, in a South Africa torn by the ravages of racial unrest, bootleg copies of Rodriuez's records found a fervently appreciative audience among young, white anti-apartheid activists, who responded to his potent lyrics of repression and urban decay. But in those pre-Internet decades, Rodriguez remained ensconced in obscurity, unaware of his international fame (in South Africa, his songs reportedly outsold those of the Beatles and Elvis), and he received absolutely no royalty payments for his art.

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‘Searching for Sugar Man'

PG-131:253 ½ stars

(Brief strong language and some drug references)

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