If you’ve ever heard the music of folk dude Sixto Rodriguez, you’ll know the Sugar Man – the spectral drug dealer at the heart of the Mexican-American songwriter’s best-known track of the same name. Via Rodriguez’s sparse acoustic guitar and vocal, the Sugar Man slips his customers horror, salvation and false friends, as well as drugs. At the song’s end a woozy whistle from the guitar searches for new highs and gets lost up there. And it’s up there where the singer has been hiding, according to Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, whose reality-stretching documentary Searching For Sugar Man tells Rodriguez’s remarkable story.
Bendjelloul’s version of the urban legend runs likes this: in the late 1960s a charismatic young songwriter called Sixto Rodriguez appears in Detroit, fully formed as a voice, but desperately shy onstage. He cuts two records of tuneful inner city protest songs – ‘Cold Fact’ (1970) and ‘Coming From Reality’ (1971) – but both bomb, leaving him to slide back to the urban grind his records railed against. Meanwhile, unknown to Rodriguez, ‘Cold Fact’ has become a hit among the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. It’s snuck through the country’s tight media regulations and wowed progressives in frank, forceful style (“How could this guy ask how many times we’ve had sex?!” marvels one fan). Like the LA Latino community’s fascination with Morrissey, or the otherworldly success of Billy Ray Cyrus in the Philippines, the songs take root against the cultural odds. With no information on the singer who was suddenly part of their struggle, South Africans speculate about their new idol. The rumours are rich and varied, but they all agree that whether by bullet, fire or heartbreak, Rodriguez was dead. Until, that is, a couple of diehard fans decide to dig into his records and tease the truth out of
Stories like Rodriguez’s – mystical, romantic, deeply weird – are the spice to pop music’s sauce, even if occasionally they become twisted to suit the legend. Bendjelloul plays a little selectively with the facts (he neglects to mention that Rodriguez had a surge of popularity in Australia in the mid-’70s, which slightly undermines the singer’s miracle re-emergence in the documentary’s third act), but he does so in his film’s favour, to service an incredible story.
Throughout the film Rodriguez remains something of an enigma, but that would only be a problem if the film was about him, and it’s not really. The driving force of Searching For Sugar Man is the fans, and their journey from the discovery of their favourite singer to the sell-out South African shows he plays 30 years after ‘Cold Fact’’s release. This dream-like tale belongs to them.