Malik Bendjelloul's thrilling documentary Searching for Sugar Man is a tale of two cities 8,000 miles apart. One is sunlit Capetown, South Africa; the other is Detroit, shot in winter with dirty snowdrifts littered with abandoned furniture.
In 1970, a folk-rocker named Sixto Rodriguez performed in a Motor City bar, a joint actually named "the Sewer." Rodriguez was shy and used Miles Davis' trick of playing with his back to the crowd. Nevertheless, he got noticed by producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, who recorded two albums with Rodriguez. The records tanked, and then, we're told, the singer apparently vanished.
By some trick of fame, Rodriguez's two albums—Cold Fact and Coming from Reality—were brought by a tourist to South Africa during the worst of the apartheid era. They became more than big hits in South Africa, these albums. In fact, they became wrapped up with the struggle against apartheid; white Afrikaners pored over Rodriguez in the same way rebellious young white Americans listened to Bob Dylan. Lacking the truth of what happened to this musician, South Africans told each other myths of Rodriguez's supposed public suicide.
Searching for Sugar Man's director appears to plump history a bit, as if a smoke machine were haloing the figure of Rodriguez. While Rodriguez didn't record a studio album after 1971, he did release a live album in Australia in 1979. His rapt Afrikaner fans cite Dylan when talking about the man, but his vocals and autobiographical lyrics actually sound more like Donovan at his best.
Still, Searching for Sugar Man is a hell of a comeback story, and the documentary is handsomely done. The story of Rodriguez's music, heard so far away from the man who made it, is an endearing lesson that a work of art lives a life of its own. It's easy to admire this musician's plainness and independence. Equally admirable is the faith of the distant fans who stayed true to him.
'Searching for Sugar Man' opens Friday, Aug. 17, at Regency 6 in San Rafael.