That unexpected geographical location for the start of the search comes from Rodriguez’s overwhelming popularity there. Activists against South Africa’s brutally oppressive apartheid found their message for racial equality channeled in Rodriguez’s antiestablishment songs. Selling over a half million albums, Rodriguez became more popular than Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, the Beatles. By contrast, Rodriguez’s two albums—“Cold Fact” (1970) and “Coming from Reality” (1971)—released in the U.S. disappointed commercially, leaving his third album unfinished. And then rumors circulated that this shy man who might play with his back to the audience committed suicide on stage, various versions given—gunshot, self-immolation.
In the late 90s, wanting to know more, two South Africans, at first unknown to each other, sought the elusive and astonishing truth. Journalist Craig Bartholomew and Stephen “Sugar” Segerman’s quest resulted in Searching for Sugar Man. It includes a revealing, contentious interview with Clarence Avant, head of Motown and Sussex records during Rodriguez’s days. Also featured, famed producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore plus those who worked with Rodriguez praise his unique talent and character.
Throughout the film, Swedish documentarian Bendjelloul intercuts contemporary interviews with wonderful animation, sketches, blurry performance snippets, and shots of Detroit’s deserted streets and dilapidated houses suffused often in the red glow of a sunset or artificial illumination used for atmospheric effect. Best of all, Bendjelloul peppers this intriguing story with Rodriguez’s songs. His crystal clear voice and heartfelt, honest sentiments transported me. I can’t reveal any more, except to say that Searching for Sugar Man is an inspirational and remarkable film. At Landmark’s Tivoli Theatre.