Two South African journalists investigate the whereabouts of an influential and mysterious rock icon that inspired a powerful movement in the touching and inspirational documentary, Searching for Sugar Man.
From the outset, first-time director, Malik Bendjelloul slowly draws the audience as several journalist unspool the tale of Rodriquez, affectionately known as the “Sugar Man.” In a culture that is rife with “Where Are They Now” stories, one would think that there are no new mountains to climb in that genre.
Taking the audience back to his roots, the film highlights several people who worked with the talented poet/musician who his supporters described as Dylan-esque with his prodigious ability to craft lyrics that were transparent, yet connected with listener, nonetheless. Rodriquez recorded two albums, 1970s Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, the following year before he was dropped from the label for low sales. With no label or future recording prospect, Rodriquez literally faded into obscurity.
Then, a funny thing happened, someone took his debut album on vacation to South Africa and begin spreading this lyrical manifest about liberation, confrontation and revolution, which drew parallels for many Afrikaners who opposed the country’s restrictive Apartheidmovement. Eager fans searching for information on this mysterious American discovered they had no contact information while rumors of his untimely demise circulate (did he set himself on fire on stage or shoot himself in head during a concert?), his fame grows to Michael Jackson/Elvis levels while it increases the mystery and intrigue centered on just who is Rodriquez?
His music serves as the soundtrack for lives of many Afrikaners and over the years, fans poured through his lyrics, trying to find any bread crumbs the rocker may have left that would give them a clue of his whereabouts. Just when it appears that all hope of uncovering the myth is lost, two journalist publish a story in South Africa entitled, Searching for Jesus (one of Rodriquez alleged first names), that provided a significant breakthrough. The surprise was two-fold, solved their mystery but also setting the stage for one of rock music’s most improbable comebacks.
Featuring music from Rodriquez’s two albums, Bendjelloul displays a deft touch balancing his investigative trail following the unpaid royalties from his music to a lighter tale of one hardcore fan that changed his name to the title of one of Rodriquez’s singles.
Far too often, people pursuing their dreams grow discouraged over time if they don’t experience short-term success. Rodriquez’s music not only touched such a universal chord but also managed to serve as an inspiration for a generation of fans. The film builds to a satisfying climax – and then soars. The year’s best documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, proves once again that if you respect your craft and do what you love to the fullest, you may not reap the rewards or understand the impact that your art has on others but over time, you will be rewarded.