Searching for Sugar Man: Sundance Film Review

A musicological mystery leads to surprising revelations about a singer-songwriter’s obscure career.

Failed in the U.S. but a success in apartheid-era South Africa, Rodriquez's story is a musical journey.

PARK CITY — If you’ve never heard of the American singer-songwriter known as Rodriquez, perhaps it’s because he reached his height of unlikely popularity in South Africa during the 1970s. After two albums that flopped in the U.S., Rodriquez’s songs improbably made their way to South Africa and spread like wildfire via bootlegs, motivating a generation of youth to join protests against the Apartheid regime of the time.

While Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary Searching for Sugar Man possesses undeniable charm, Rodriquez’s Stateside obscurity poses certain challenges that could unpredictably complicate anything other than a narrow theatrical release, likely making DVD and broadcast safer bets.

Inspired by Rodriquez’s huge popularity in their country and intrigued by the artist’s mysterious background, two white South Africans who began independent investigations of his career in the mid-90s eventually combined resources in their quest to learn more about their musical hero. Like many of their generation, record retailer Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and music journalist Craig Bartholemew were huge fans of Rodriquez’s music, even though little was known of his life or career -- in fact, he was rumored to have died in a tragic on-stage suicide.

A Mexican-American folk lyricist and guitarist from Detroit, Sixto Rodriquez played solo in seedy bars on the wrong side of town before coming to the attention of producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore in 1968. The two, who had previously recorded with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, were moved by Rodriquez’s soulful folk and blues numbers protesting racial and economic inequality, as well as more impressionistic tunes focusing on love and drugs, including the titular “Sugar Man.” They produced Rodriquez’s first album “Cold Fact” in 1970, fully expecting it to break into the mainstream, but the release was a flop. “Coming From Reality” in 1971 fared no better and his recording label unceremoniously dropped him.

In South Africa, meanwhile, “Cold Fact” was a huge hit that eventually went platinum while also spreading among fans via pirated copies. Despite his popularity, Bartholemew and Segerman had very few clues to pursue in their investigation – information about Rodriquez on the album cover of “Cold Fact” was sparse, so they turned to his lyrics for clues. Eventually they tracked him to Detroit and producer Theodore, who dropped a bombshell that completely changed the course of their inquiry and the trajectory of Rodriquez’s career.

Swedish documentarian Malik Bendjelloul begins his profile of the musician with Segerman and Bartholemew, tracing their investigation from South Africa to the U.S. and points beyond. The dearth of information on their subject is amply demonstrated through interviews with enthusiastic musicians and industry professionals in the film’s first hour. Although these experts are familiar with Rodriquez’s music, they have few details to offer on his life, while rumors of his unfortunate demise continue to persist.

Despite an affecting soundtrack featuring Rodriquez’s wistful music and penetrating lyrics, the unexpected twist late in the film struggles to overcome flagging narrative momentum following 60 minutes of interviews and largely unrelated cutaways showcasing attractive South African landscapes and gritty Detroit street scenes. An early, moody and well-executed animated sequence is never picked up later in the film and while all the interview subjects are enthusiastic, the overall lack of familiarity with Rodriquez’s personal background and career collapse begin to drag.

While it’s unquestionable that Rodriquez is long past receiving his due as an inspiring and accomplished musician, it’s unlikely that even re-editing some footage could improve the pacing, since there probably isn’t much worthwhile material to add, and so the film’s remarkable revelations come too late to relieve the creeping inertia.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Day One, World Cinema Documentary Competition

Production companies: A Red Box Films/Passion Pictures Production in association with Canfield Pictures and The Documentary Company

Director/screenwriter: Malik Bendjelloul
Producers: Simon Chinn, Malik Bendjelloul
Executive producer: John Battsek
Director of photography: Camilla Skagerström
Music: Sixto Rodriguez
Editor: Malik Bendjelloul

Sales: Submarine
No rating, 85 minutes