You never know where social resistance will find its prophets and poets. For young liberal Afrikaners opposing apartheid in the '70s, it was an unknown Detroit singer-songwriter named Rodriguez, the mysterious figure at the soulful center of the excellent new documentary Searching for Sugar Man.
As the story goes, a bootleg copy of the singer's first album, 1970's Cold Fact, made its way into South Africa. The powerful lyrics of repression and urban decay quickly caught on among the country's disaffected youth. The album went platinum in South Africa, and his legend grew. They say he was more popular than Elvis.
Years would pass until the persistence of an obsessive fan and the resourceful digging by music writer Craig Bartholomew-Strydom would lead back to Detroit, where Rodriguez's story began. you feel as if you are there as filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul sleuths out each clue to Rodriguez's fate, resurrecting the man and the music in the process.
The truth-is-stranger-than-fiction saga has been a hit on the festival circuit, winning top documentary prizes at Sundance for the Swedish Bendjelloul. What sets Searching for Sugar Man apart, though, is the way in which the filmmaker preserves a sense of mystery in the telling.
Bendjelloul begins in present-day South Africa with Stephen "Sugar" Segerman, that obsessive fan. His nickname, and the documentary's title, are drawn from one of Rodriguez's classic cuts, a haunting ode to a corner cocaine dealer called Sugar Man.
While fans half a world away were connecting with the work of the man his producers called a Chicano Bob Dylan, Rodriguez remained unknown in the United States, dropped from his recording contract after his albums flopped and returned to a blue-collar life. For decades, the cerebral poet had no idea that on the other side of the globe, he was a rock superstar.
It was a juicy story that Bendjelloul, whose documentary TV work has long focused on rock music, was keen to tell. Still, the filmmaker had an interesting challenge in chronicling the life and unlikely stardom of Rodriguez.
Though the facts alone were compelling, there was almost no performance footage to work with, a central ingredient in most rock documentaries. The music, however, was there. The rustic folk-rock sound and politically provocative lyrics provide the seductive soundtrack for the film. They often serve as a stand-in for the artist as well. It is how we get to know him.
It is a slow tease of a film, as Bendjelloul wends his way through the many myths and pieces together the reality. But finally there is Rodriguez. A modest man of modest means, he quietly reflects on the success he now enjoys a continent away from his Detroit home and the hard times in between.
As it happens, the Rodriguez that Bendjelloul found is almost as elusive as the Rodriguez who was lost. Interviews with the artist and his family fill in many of the details of those missing years, but what shapes and drives his artistry remains just out of reach.