If every Sundance film festival needs at least one documentary to remind white people of all the great music in the world they don’t know about, at least “Searching For Sugar Man” seems like 2012’s front-runner for the best one. A born crowd-pleaser whose central mystery begets a great triumph of grace and modesty, Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary about forgotten-before-he-was-known folk-pop singer Rodriguez is a hugely entertaining, emotionally touching, and musically revelatory experience.
Rodriguez was a Detroit singer-songwriter who recorded two albums in the early 1970s for the now-defunct Sussex record label, before evidently committing suicide during his last public performance. As the film debates the musician’s fate – one interviewee suggests he set himself on fire, another reports that he actually shot himself in the head – Bendjelloul tells the serpentine story of two South African men, one a journalist and one a huge Rodriguez fan, who banded together to figure out what happened to their mysterious hero. Evidently, although both of his albums flopped big time in the States, they made him a significant pop star in Cape Town, South Africa, where his working-class poetry awakened young Afrikans’ social awareness. But as the duo takes to the internet, employing every means possible to find out anything about the late icon, they uncover a remarkable piece of news that sends their investigation in an unexpected direction.
Most viewers hearing Rodriguez’ music for the first time will detect the strong influence of folk icons like Bob Dylan in his work, as much for its social consciousness as its remarkable melodic complexity, but the musician belongs just as much to the tradition of '70s singer-songwriters like James Taylor, Paul Williams and others – and he’s every bit as listenable, making his obscurity that much more inexplicable. But the soundtrack suggests a deep well of honest pain within Rodriguez that couldn’t be contained, and Bendjelloul masterfully combines that with the rumors about his various methods of suicide to create a buttress of tragedy, off of which the second half of the film builds to a powerful crescendo of validation and success. That he never knew that Cape Town was evidently the epicenter of where his fans celebrated his work was saddening, but that information is itself a brilliant foundation for a redemptive ending where he’s not just known or recognized, but celebrated in the way that he should have been during his heyday.
In addition to Rodriguez’ music, however, Bendjelloul composes a score for the film that operates on a different sort of theatrical level that suggests grand conspiracies and murder mysteries moreso than “what happened to this guy, and who was he anyway?” But after an oddly melodramatic opening scene, the film settles down into examining Rodriguez, and exploring the past, present and future of his work in a way that’s deeply moving. Interview footage of his daughters reveals that even during his days of recording, he held down employment as a day laborer who would take on any job, no matter how difficult or unpleasant, and maintained a constant sense of modesty, both personally and financially. The portrait that emerges of him isn’t of some mercurial “artiste” who imploded after his records didn’t sell, but of a person who felt a need to explore himself creatively, had the talent to do so, and then possessed the grace to deal with his failure in a simple, pragmatic way. And all of those details build to a finale that doesn’t improbably overstate his importance or leave his accomplishments half-respected, lingering of bitterness, but one which peacefully observes how capable he was of dealing with potential success or failure, and how and where he found the success that eluded him during his recording days.
Ultimately, this film is at once a time capsule, tribute, and encapsulation of his talent, personality and legacy, and while it may not make Rodriguez the star he perhaps deserved to be, it will certainly find him a whole new legion of fans – and in the States, no less. So really, the only question that remains is whether audiences will track down the actual albums, which it should be noted were released by the good folks at Light in the Attic in 2009, or seek out some greatest hits package associated with the film. (My guess, given the limited appetites of most moviegoers, is the latter, even if they’ve been moved to tears by an artist’s work, as many were at the screening I attended). But if “big in Japan” was for a long time a bellweather for the real success of a musical artist, Rodriguez proves that “big in Cape Town” is no less of an accomplishment, and “Searching For Sugar Man” pays suitable tribute without overstating his impact on the rest of the world, but still leaving audiences with a sense of completion, both in terms of his ambitions and the world’s reaction to his work. [A-]