In 1970, a Detroit singer-songwriter going by the name of Rodriguez dropped his first album Cold Fact to a disastrously tepid public response (anecdotal evidence suggests it sold roughly 35 copies in its initial pressing). Made up of songs about urban decay, drug use, and the elusive nature of lasting human connections, Rodriguez’s album was considered by Motown producers as a sure thing, or at least capable of capturing some of Bob Dylan’s target demographic. After the resounding silence that greeted his first album, Rodriguez was given one more shot by record producer/actor/dilettante Steve Rowland, dropping Coming From Reality in 1971. Featuring even more intricately sad melodies and subject matter, his sophomore outing summarily flopped, as well. At this point even his most staunch supporters weren’t willing to lose money financing his artistic endeavors, and he faded from public view entirely, with a couple sensational theories about his demise (some taking place on-stage) emerging in subsequent years.
Searching For Sugarman is a bracing documentary about one extraordinarily and inherently fascinating cult pop music legend. The thing is, after Rodriguez gave up on his attempts to make it as a singer, after he’d been all but forgotten by the few people in the U.S. that knew him to begin with, his debut album became something of a counter-cultural totem among the white youth of South Africa. Origin stories abound, but the favorite narrative of the Rainbow Nation is that someone’s American girlfriend had a copy on her when she visited, played it some party, and it became an instant bootleg classic. Cold Fact’s tunes and their frank attitudes toward sex and drugs were something of an anomaly in Apartheid-era South Africa, which had some Footloose caliber decency laws and would ban just about anything that implied people liked doing it with each other.
Director Mikal Bendjelloul shrewdly chooses to focus on the personal aspects of Rodriguez’s impact on the South African youth in revolt. There are some obligatory references to his music’s impact on the struggle of young, liberal whites to find something of value to offer the oppressed victims of apartheid. Facing arrest and pretty gnarly lasting consequences for civil unrest, young folks needed a soundtrack for their ultimately risky behavior, and this was a shitton better than Steve Miller, I guess. Rodriguez was a perfect type for these young South Africans to idolize, the fact that he had no backstory whatsoever only making his legend all the more powerful. After a while, it seemed virtually impossible that he could still be alive. This idea is what sparks the most entertaining facet of the doc: a detective story featuring an unlikely pairing of a record-store owning Rodriguez fanatic with a music journalist unsatisfied with the complete lack of knowledge of one of their Nation’s counter-cultural landmarks.
Bendjelloul’s grasp of the culture which greeted Rodriguez’s work in South Africa contrasts a bit poorly with his understanding of Detroit, but this is kind of to be expected at this point in the sad recent filmic history of The Paris of The West. The director chooses some fairly rote scenes of economic and physical despair in the Motor City, but manages to avoid engaging in full-on ruin porn. His shots of Rodriguez’s neighborhood in Detroit serve not so much as a commentary on the sorry state of the City as it is today, but more as a context for the songs that made the artist famous in South Africa.
Bendjelloul’s debut is a playful, intriguing, exciting, and ultimately super-rewarding exploration of an almost too perfect true story. What makes this film work, honestly, is a deeply felt understanding of nostalgia, fandom, and the innately curious fascination that results when generally selfish people encounter someone who seems at once genuinely unconcerned with recognition and overly grateful for it. You look twice, because on first glace we know instinctively it must be an act — Rodriguez’s self deprecation and humility must just be some artsy put-on. Rodriguez is a reserved man who’s maybe too crazy to crassly enjoy his latter-day success, and that is what makes this movie as good as it is. That and everyone can get behind a really well-done detective story. Especially if it’s legit.