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.
Meanwhile, the mystique surrounding this elusive artist grew — with a South African government ban on his music and with wild rumors that a distraught Rodriguez had committed suicide on stage. Eventually, largely due to the attentions of Cape Town record-shop owner and obsessive fan Stephen “Sugar” Segerman (his nickname drawn from a classic Rodriguez ode to a cocaine dealer) and music writer Craig Batholomew-Strydom, the mystery of Rodriguez's life began to be pieced together.
Enter Bendjelloul, a Swedish TV director with a few music documentaries to his credit, to pull all the loose bits together – using talking-head interviews with record producers, bartenders, construction workers, music journalists and many soulful samples of Rodriguez's brooding, bluesy pop tunes — and to weave this musical mystery story into a lovely, stirring film (which was launched with honors at the last Sundance Film Festival).
It's a story that's almost too amazing to be true. But when we finally meet the man himself, Rodriguez, who at age 70 finds his life as an artist begun anew, he comes across as a cool, sage, humble dude who remarkably bears no grudges and who seems serenely philosophical about his odd artistic fate. The tantalizing, frustrating and finally heartening track of his wayward career echoes eerily in a lyric from one of his songs that goes: “The sweetest kiss I ever got/ is the one I never tasted.” What a graceful man.
‘Searching for Sugar Man'
(Brief strong language and some drug references)