Bendjelloul Gives Us “Where Are They Now” Fierceness On Forgotten Artist
First time filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul spins on salivating subject matter, documenting the long forgotten (in the US) and rumored to be dead folk recording artist Rodriguez, who created two critically hailed albums from the early 1970s, both which flopped resoundingly. While there’s a tremendous amount of intrigue surrounding its enigmatic subject, Searching For Sugar Man, presenting itself as a film about hope, inspiration, and the resonating power of music, stumbles over itself, failing to reach beyond the surface when faced head on with its subject, a man whose works may have inspired hope and inspiration, but whose life has been lived to inspire and encourage without material benefit, something that the documentary doesn’t quite know how to address.
In 1968, two music producers sought out a mysterious and talented musician known for playing with his back to the audience in downtown Detroit bars, known as Rodriguez and famed for his soulful melodies and powerful lyrics. A folk singer in the vein of Bob Dylan, the producers (of the ilk that produced music for names like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder) thought him to be the next big thing, a man so talented, he would blow anything remotely everything else out of the water. However, his first album, Cold Fact, was a commercial flop. Add to that a second financial failure with a second album, Coming From Reality, and the soulful singer found himself dropped from the label. While all the producers that ever worked with him swear he’s one of the best artists they were ever blessed with having produced, no one in America ever heard about him. However, somehow, a copy of his first album was transported to South Africa, where it was copied and passed around until it became such a massive phenomenon there, that Rodriguez was considered bigger than the Rolling Stones or Elvis. He became a voice of a people (well, the white middle class people, anyway) that were reduced by the harsh political climate that had a stranglehold on the country. No one toured there, no one made music there, and certainly nothing was coming out of South Africa, a pariah country, where no one thought to try and find out anything about Rodriguez.
However, it seemed to be common knowledge that the singer had notoriously killed himself on stage, either by a gun to the temple or self immolation. It wasn’t until August of 1997, when his second album was released on CD in South Africa that some liner notes asking for information about the mysterious singer inspired one musicologist to become an amateur sleuth and track down informaton. What he finds is both beyond his and the entire country’s imagination, as Rodriguez happens to be alive and well, living as hard laborer in an impoverished part of Detroit.
Bendjelloul’s best moments come when Rodriguez and his three daughters are interviewed and glimpse footage of them when they travel to Cape Town in 1998 to see their father play several sold out shows to crowds of delirious fans. However, we never really get a glimpse into what he was up to between 1973 and 1997. Sure, we learn he ran for mayor of Detroit and city council, and these highlights are given a brief moment or two of discussion, but where’s the mother of his three daughters? Why does he always wear sunglasses everywhere he goes? Why is he so fanatically frugal that even the money he earned from his concerts he gives away to friends and family, while he fritters away at hard labor, presumably without health insurance and any tangible material possessions? While it’s evident that Rodriguez champions the working class way of life, this aspect of his existence gets the short shrift here. Which is funny, considering the director of Searching For Sugar Man seems obsessed with finding out where all the money from Rodriguez’s record sales in South Africa went. A tense interview with Sussex founder Clarence Avant reveals that him to be saying a little without saying a lot on the subject, but it’s not something Rodriguez himself is even asking about.
Featuring a multitude of Rodriguez’s songs, there’s a melancholy throwback quality in Searching For Sugar Man, which lends it a sort of inspirational energy throughout. But for all the hype, it’s all the time that passed for the folk musician off the map that retains the most elusive mystery. In the end, perhaps the fantasy and mythic qualities surrounding the singer don’t quite live up to the reality, but what an intriguing and humble person he is. By far the best aspect of the film is to discover the music of Rodriguez, whose haunting lyrics truly were never appreciated in his native country.