*** (out of four)
The Beatles. Simon and Garfunkel. Rodriguez.
Apparently, South African music fans in the ‘90s put little-known early ‘70s folk singer Rodriguez on the same level as those legends. The Detroit-native musician, however, dropped from his label after two albums, had no idea of his fame across the ocean. And everyone in South Africa thought the guy was dead.
Director Malik Bendjelloul’s stranger-than-fiction documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” chronicles the unusual sequence of events that leads a South African journalist and record store owner in search of a famous-yet-obscure musician long rumored to have committed suicide on stage. This sort of investigation couldn’t happen in the Internet age. Back when people didn’t know a ton about every single artist on the planet, Rodriguez went completely unnoticed by the public upon the release of his records “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality,” and it’s both unusual and inspiring to see what happens when his career almost literally comes back to life.
The artist himself remains a bit of an enigma; the movie could have thrived with more reflection from its subject and fewer shots of him walking around town or producers marveling at his genius. Regardless, this is a movie about the tragedy of promise unfulfilled, told through a person who doesn’t seem to see it as a tragedy at all—or is by now too numb to reality to play “What if?”
An executive at Rodriguez’s former label notes that Latin music hadn’t caught on yet—Rodriguez is part Mexican and part Native American but his music recalls Bob Dylan and Tim Buckley—and you’ll want to hear more analysis about why this man didn’t sell.
In fact, this is a movie that you want to interview as it’s happening. Sure, artists come along all the time who collaborators praise but the public dismisses. Not all of them, however, as Rodriguez did for anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, become so-called anthems for revolution. “Searching for Sugar Man” will make virtually all viewers want to track down the records immediately. It will be a massive increase for American sales of an artist who was cherished abroad long after he had slipped away from his hometown crowd, with barely any applause to die down.
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