“Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas,” goes a line in “Cause” by the Detroit-born singer/songwriter Rodriguez. If you’ve never heard of the song or the singer, he’s used to that. And he’s long been accustomed to the fickle tastes of the music business, having been dropped from the Sussex record label two weeks before Christmas of 1971.
He continued to write and play his songs of political protest, but for the most part faded from the American music scene after his albums “Cold Fact” (1970) and “Coming From Reality” (1971) both tanked in the U.S. Win some, lose some.
In South Africa, however, through bootlegged copies of his music, he shot to stardom, inspiring young Afrikaners in their opposition to Apartheid and a repressive government. “He gave [us] permission to free our minds. To many South Africans, he was a soundtrack to our lives,” says South African journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, adding that the three essential records in those days were “Abbey Road,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Cold Fact.”
Despite his enormous popularity, his loyal fans knew little about him. By the ’90s, he ranked as a mysterious urban legend, owing to persistent and widespread rumors that he’d committed suicide on-stage. Trying to piece together the details of his demise, Bartholomew-Strydom and Stephen Segerman, a fellow fan/record seller, decided to probe what really happened.
And in “Searching for Sugar Man,” by Stockholm-based documentary filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, we find out. A man-hunt, a meditation and a fairy tale, it’s an unforgettable story, by turns bafflingly suspenseful and deeply moving. Says Rodriguez, now 70: “In rock ’n’ roll, there’s always disappointment, criticism, rejection. That’s part of it. And that it all worked out like this, it’s all right with me.”
Bendjelloul paints a contemplative, joyful and visually sumptuous portrait of an artist. We meet music and media insiders such as Motor City producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore who discovered Rodriguez in the late 1960s in a local bar and Sussex Records founder Clarence Avant as well as longtime Detroiters and Rodriguez’s three daughters. “They put me on the map,” says Rodriguez of his kids.
Shot by Camilla Skagerström with a Sony EX1, Super 8 and a Super 8 iPhone app and punctuated with animation, the film perfectly captures atmosphere: follow-the-money, investigative tension in sunny Cape Town contrasted with the grittily poetic qualities of Detroit – a nightscape pregnant with thunder and rain; slow, careful footsteps over snow-and-ice encrusted streets in a desolate city; neon signs lighting up bars like the Sewer and in-store posters announcing “We accept food stamps.”
And Bendjelloul precisely renders his subject, showing us Rodriguez’ prophetic but elusive spirit and letting us hear the voice – plaintive, searing and soulful – that’s as capable of inspiration today as it was 40 years ago.
“Searching for Sugar Man” opens Friday in New York and LA. The soundtrack is available at: http://myplay.me/u3e.