How could an artist of such originality and vision as Vincent Van Gogh sell almost no paintings in his lifetime? Groundbreaking television series like Arrested Development and The Wire struggled to find an audience during their initial runs. Searching for Sugar Man tackles a similar conundrum. How could a songwriter as deft and poetic as Rodriguez be ignored by radio stations and overlooked by the public? Moreover, what happened to Rodriguez after his evocative albums failed to sell? Did he commit suicide onstage? Searching for Sugar Man is a fascinating detective story. It begins with a haunting question, but evolves into a love story that spans from South Africa to the Motor City. Joy is found in forgotten songs and unexpected places.
Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul does a brilliant job of doling out the clues in this mystery tale. The dark sunglasses and shadowy visage of Rodriguez match this beguiling documentary. Try to see this Sundance Audience Award winner before too many of the twists are revealed (60 Minutes recently covered the story). The secret revealed are so satisfying. The story will put a smile on your face and a song in your heart. And yet in an era of too much information, Rodriguez retains the most elusive trait–an air of wonder.
Two South African musicologists wanted to discover what happened to the man behind the soundtrack of their lives. While Americans ignored Rodriguez’s dark tales our inner cities circa 1969, South Africans eager to subvert apartheid found a source of inspiration. Did his observations of injustice cut too close to our reality? Did the distance between Detroit and Cape Town allow more room for South African listeners to warm up to Rodriguez’s cool vibe? Rodriguez remained a prophet without honor in his chilly hometown. But the persistence of devoted fans like Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman overcomes the cloud hanging over a failed folk rock career. He combs over lyric sheets and publishing info looking for clues. Searching for Sugar Man celebrates the pull of music to animate our dreams and fuel our obsessions.
The poignant songs of Rodriguez become an evocative commentary on his struggles. He was discovered in a dive bar called The Sewer. On his debut album, “Cold Fact,” he walks the back alleys, tracks the hustlers, and elevates the downtrodden. The sadness that hangs over his songs is magnified by the opportunity lost. Why didn’t Rodriguez become a huge star? Perhaps radio programmers only had room for one Hispanic star and Jose Feliciano had already filled that role. Yet, the filmmakers resist the temptation to reduce indifference to racism. Rodriguez becomes an exemplar of character beyond countdowns. Evidently, a satisfying life can be found outside of fame and fortune. And Rodriguez’s three wonderful daughters demonstrate where enduring riches are found.
Searching for Sugar Man is also about second chances. When is it too late to be discovered? We all want to believe our dreams can still be fulfilled late in life. But should we write, sing, or create only in order to be discovered? No, we ought to sing because we were made to tell stories, to share each other’s pain, to bear each other’s burden. Searching for Sugar Man suggests that such artistry is sacramental, turning everyday experiences into transcendent truths. The finest music elevates our hardships to a universal level. We sing because we must, not because we expect to get paid. What we receive as a gift, we also share as a gift. That is the generous spirit which bursts from the songs and the screen.
Should an artist with Rodriguez’s gift find an audience? Absolutely. But a person of Rodriguez’s character will sing with joy or work construction with the same level of creativity and commitment irrespective of who’s watching. Rodriguez plays to an audience of one. In an age of endless self-promotion, that is why Searching for Sugar Man deserves the widest audience possible. It is quite simply, the most vibrant documentary of the year.