South Africa’s American idol
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, August 3, 2012
In the 1970s, when their country was isolated from the world because of its apartheid policies, young, white, liberal South Africans took solace in a particular album. The work of an American singer-songwriter, this record offered a worldview that was angry, poetic and possibly prophetic. Adding to its seditious allure, the album was banned from the airwaves by the South African government.
It must have been by Bob Dylan, right?
Well, no. It was “
,” by Rodriguez, a Detroit-born Mexican American who recorded two albums that went virtually unheard in the United States. After the commercial failure of “Cold Fact” and its successor, “Coming From Reality,” Rodriguez vanished from the music biz.
Viewed from the Southern Hemisphere, the singer’s puzzling disappearance required a dramatic explanation. Rumors spread that Rodriguez had committed suicide, perhaps even setting himself on fire in front of an audience.
These days, such reports can easily be checked via a thing called the Internet. But anyone who’s thinking of seeing Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s canny documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man,” should not do that. Entering “Sixto Diaz Rodriguez” -- the musician’s full name -- into a search engine would spoil the fun.
Although the movie eventually establishes the facts of Rodriguez’s life, it’s in no hurry to do so. Instead, Bendjelloul savors the hunt begun by Stephen Segerman, a South African fan whose friends called “Sugar Man” after a Rodriguez song.
Segerman becomes a music store owner and tracks his idol through his South African label. In the United States, he interviews producers, A&R men and record executives who had worked with Rodriguez. (The funniest of these exchanges is with former label boss Clarence Avant, who testily professes no interest in why the royalties flowing from South Africa didn’t reach Rodriguez or his family.) None of these former associates knows what happened to the singer-songwriter.
The mystery finally is solved, in a way that’s narratively satisfying. Indeed, “Searching for Sugar Man” pays off so neatly that viewers might suspect the movie is fiction.
It’s not, but neither is it the whole truth. Bendjelloul skips certain developments to make the story more dramatic. There’s one other problem: Rodriguez’s music isn’t all that great. His flute-flecked jazz-folk odes to urban distress won’t wow anyone who has listened to Van Morrison, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” or orchestral-period Phil Ochs.
Still, the movie is neatly structured, and Rodriguez turns out to be an interesting guy. He’s worth getting to know, even if his music isn’t.
Contains profanity and drug references.