In the early 1970s, a Detroit-based singer-songwriter called Rodriguez recorded a pair of haunting, eloquent rock albums that sank without a ripple in the U.S. music market. Now, the thrilling documentary film “Searching for Sugar Man” approaches Rodriguez as such a man of mystery that even his first name remains uncertain. Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul’s English-language movie treats the singer as more legend than human being, magnifying his mystique.
In one of the film’s first sequences, Rodriguez’s first two producers describe going to see him perform for the first time at the Sewer, a waterfront bar in Detroit. Both describe the building as being shrouded in mist outside and dense with cigarette smoke inside. They follow the sound of the music to a shadowy figure onstage and find the singer performing with his back to the audience, so it can’t see his face. It’s no wonder Rodriguez quickly disappeared from public view.
Much of “Searching for Sugar Man” hints at the importance of mythos to music and how listeners can fill in gaps in a performer’s biography or apply their own situational interpretations to songs. Like the gumshoes in a gripping detective story, Bendjelloul and his subjects attempt to solve the riddle of Rodriguez: is he even alive, or are rumors of his onstage suicide founded in reality? The documentary builds suspense so effectively that I won’t spoil its stranger-than-fiction revelations.
Rodriguez’s ’70s collaborators describe him as a true artist tragically out of sync with his times. One producer plays part of a song titled “Cause” that begins “ ’Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas” and then reveals that, not long after the song debuted on Rodriguez’s roundly ignored second album, the record label dropped him two weeks before the holiday. You can empathize with the producer’s sorrow at Rodriguez’s failure to hit it big. Judging from the soundtrack tunes, his songs contain intricate lyrics and deliberately paced and dramatically urgent melodies, unified by the clarity of his vocals. They’re like Bob Dylan songs that you can make out to.
While America ignored Rodriguez, his music found underground popularity in South Africa, literally on the other side of the earth. Rodriguez superfan and record shop owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, whose nickname comes from the musician’s song “Sugar Man,” describes Rodriguez’s debut album, “Cold Fact,” as becoming as ubiquitous in South Africa as the Beatles’ “Abbey Road” or Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Segerman shares a possibly apocryphal story about how an American girl brought over a Rodriguez LP that became “album zero” at the center of a word-of-mouth, bootleg-driven sensation that was never noticed outside South Africa. One music industry executive estimates that Rodriguez eventually sold half a million records.
The film smoothly shifts from Detroit’s depressed urban landscape to South Africa’s nascent anti-apartheid movement. Rodriguez’s anti-establishment songs inspired a wave of Afrikaner protest rock (which, judging from the film’s interviews, was driven by white musicians). In a sign of the regime’s hostility to dissent, censors would carve scratches in the vinyl of forbidden tracks on Rodriguez albums to render them unfit for radio airplay. Which, of course, made those songs prized all the more by the nation’s Rodriguez fans.
In the 1990s, South African music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom launched an investigation to find out whatever had happened to Rodriguez. He tried to “follow the money” of the musician’s South African royalty payments, but the paper trail evaporated. The film intercuts between record executives on opposite sides of the Atlantic pointing fingers at each other, and then drops the issue of music industry chicanery. Instead, Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom resort to studying album liner notes and even song lyrics for clues, and they find a breakthrough in the line “Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o’clock this morn.”
“Searching for Sugar Man” assembles a colorful cast of characters, including some splendidly loquacious Detroit blue-collar guys. Bendjelloul captures the ephemeral nature of pop culture before the Internet, when obscure, sought-after recordings or other products took on the nature of sacred relics. Best of all, it offers a touching tribute to fandom’s ability to take positive inspiration from an artist and give back good vibes, despite separations of time and distance. Eventually, the film suggests, a great song will make its way to its ideal listener.
“Searching for Sugar Man.” With Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom. Directed by Malik Bendjelloul. Rated PG. 85 minutes. At the Tara Theatre.