He was a nobody here, but he was a superstar in another place… and never knew it.
Dir. Malik Bendjelloul, 2012, 86 min, Seen in the Theater
If Searching for Sugar Man is to be believed, 70’s folk rock singer Rodriguez was a major driving force behind the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa. This seems unlikely, if for no other reason than the fact that no one outside of South Africa really knows who this man is. Then again, no one within the country knew anything about him, either. They just loved his music. Apparently, Rodriguez is even bigger than Elvis there. It’s like David Hasselhoff’s popularity in Germany ratcheted up by a thousand. Fame is relative.
Rodriguez was an American, a downtrodden denizen of Detroit at the point when the city was beginning its hard slide into decay. Despite his wonderful, Bob Dylan-esque style, he only released two albums, both of which flopped awfully. He wasn’t even a flash in the pan – more like a pop of oil. But when bootleg copies of those albums infiltrated South Africa, they caught on like mad. Multiple South African musicians interviewed for this doc cite him as a major influence.
What’s even more fascinating was how much South Africans adored Rodriguez while knowing absolutely nothing about him. His failure in America meant that there was no press around him, so his fans could only guess as to the nature of his life. Urban legends sprang up around his death, claiming that he committed suicide before a live audience. The documentary structures itself around two particularly dedicated South African fans who, during the 90’s, went in search of the truth about this enigma. What they discovered rocked their understanding of their favorite artist.
There’s a big “twist” to the story here, and even knowing that there is a twist may make it easy to guess. But a quick Internet research session will show that Rodriguez is in fact still alive, and that he spent decades performing odd jobs in Detroit while utterly unaware of the adulation his music received overseas. His rediscovery was major news in South Africa, but it meant little to him personally. Not only is fame relative, but importance is as well. Does the fact that the legend is, in reality, a rather simple, unassuming man at all detract from the legend? The truth is that there are two Rodriguezes: the real man, and the near-mythological figure who inspired millions.
It’s not clear what the reason was for Rodriguez’s massive success in South Africa, and the film doesn’t really have an answer. Rodriguez’s lyrics, dedicated to the plight of the poor and oppressed, certainly spoke to the zeitgeist, but that doesn’t explain how huge he was. Then again, phenomena like this seems ineffable to a certain extent (see again: Hasselhoff in Germany). It would likely take the strenuously researched efforts of sociologists and anthropologists to explain exactly what about this particular songster made his work thrive in this particular place.
Here’s the thing about Searching for Sugar Man: when you look past how well-produced it is, and the twisty-turniness of the plot, there isn’t really much to it. The stuff about the nature of fame is what I extrapolated from the story; the movie itself isn’t interested in that question. It’s more involved in erecting a love letter to Rodriguez. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it means the film is rather ephemeral. It’s sort of The Usual Suspects of documentaries: once you get past the big twist, you’re left wondering what the point is.
And the movie really failed to convince me that Rodriguez truly played a big role in the anti-Apartheid movement. The most evidence the doc can offer is the word of a very few people. Sure, we see the man’s albums catalogued in a library of banned materials, but it’s a few items among many thousands. More troubling is how, despite the supposed influence of the music on the movement, there isn’t a single black South African featured in the film. It’s one thing to create a tribute to a cool musician with a cool story, but it’s another to inflate his importance to such an unnecessary degree.
There probably won’t be the likes of a story as strange as Rodriguez’s ever again. The circumstances around the musician’s unusual claim to fame arose out of the unique climate of South Africa under Apartheid, and would be difficult to replicate without some similar cultural embargo. Besides that, the Internet makes it rather easy to track people down nowadays, no matter how obscure they are. Searching for Sugar Man had a truly singular tale to tell, but fails to find the more intriguing nuances in that tale. Instead of asking the questions it raises about how we traffic in symbols and inspiration, it decides to be nothing more than a fluff piece. And that’s a shame.