★★★ (out of 5 stars)
Opens Friday, Dec. 7, at Enzian Theater
The setting is a post-riot, Nixon-era Detroit churning through the early stages of urban erosion, where a thoughtful young folk rocker named Sixto Rodriguez slugs it out playing gigs in flea-bitten dive bars. He manages to land a deal with a record label, and crafts a pair of lyrically edgy, musically soulful albums that excite the critics, but land with a thud on retail shelves.
He quickly fades from memory in the United States, but miraculously, unbelievably he becomes an icon on the other side of the globe, where his songs become the soundtrack to the political awakening of white middle-class kids in, of all places, apartheid South Africa. There he is as famous as Dylan or the Stones, but thanks to a cultural embargo in a pre-Internet world, neither the artist nor his fans know the slightest thing about each other. Rumors spread like weeds. Some claim Rodriguez took his own life years before, dousing himself in gasoline on stage and setting himself on fire in the ultimate show-closing encore. These whispers became common knowledge in South Africa, and fans despaired of ever learning more about their mystery idol. The world spins on, but the mystery gnaws at some dedicated music buffs, who set out to solve the riddle of what happened to Rodriguez – and end up with startling results.
It is a story that seems like especially florid fiction, but it is real, despite the film version getting slightly caught up in the myth instead of, as Rodriguez dubbed his first album, Cold Fact. It's a tale that is part detective story, part fable, part melancholy love letter to the creative life, and it is in many ways unreal. But a new, mesmerizing documentary about Rodriguez, Searching for Sugar Man, dazzles even as it leaves hints of a larger story left untold.
First-time feature filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul approaches the project like a cold case file. He paints haunted pictures of a snow-coated, smokestack-plumed Detroit that seem more like the gloomy locale for a gritty noir, rather than a musical exploration. Even the sun-dappled streets and beaches of Cape Town carry the ominous legacy of bigotry with them, and the bizarre circumstances of Rodriguez's vanishing act are reported almost like a crime.
In a certain way, it is. The man sold millions of records, but not one cent of the profits found its way to the creator. In the film's thorniest moment, the director confronts former Motown exec and owner of the defunct Sussex label Clarence Avant about the missing loot, and he amusingly bristles with the faux-righteous fire of the guilty when pinned down.
There are also many funny and enlightening moments, as when a South African sleuth breaks out an atlas to locate a place mentioned in a Rodriguez lyric, an exotic locale called "Dearborn." Jocular bartender Dan DeMaggio sheepishly admits that for years he thought Rodriguez was a drifter. Others, like producer and session ace Dennis Coffey, breathlessly elaborate on the music, a curious blend of Bob Dylan's romantic imagery, Lou Reed's street-level kink and Phil Ochs's indignant political howl.
There are holes; the timeline has been somewhat muddled, and certain important career details ignored, but these omissions are only in the service of the drama. Bendjelloul tries very hard to string out intrigue, though the current media onslaught for the film serves as fairly large spoiler of a happy ending. If it hasn't been totally ruined for you already, embrace the mystery of Searching for Sugar Man for yourself, and let the legend and redemption of a long-dismissed musician speak for itself.
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