The subject of Searching for Sugar Man is what you might call an easy sell. In the late 1960s, two music producers walked into a smoke-filled dive bar on the docks of Detroit to see Sixto Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter of distinct talent but who played with his back turned to the audience. They signed him to Sussex and A&R Records and, under the name Rodriguez, he released two memorable albums, Cold Fact and Coming to Reality. Both were received favorably enough by the few critics who heard them, but they bombed commercially, and so Rodriguez was dropped by his labels. Not too long after, a myth began to grow about the artist's very public suicide, though details were disparate depending on who you talked to; some said he blew his head off with a revolver, others said he doused himself in lighter fluid and pulled a Tibetan monk in front of a barroom audience.
It's a phenomenal hook, and first-time director Malik Bendjelloul captures Detroit's unique working-class rhythms admirably through interviews with local denizens and music producers, coloring it a bit with some animation and ample shots of the cityscape. The Swedish filmmaker gives a similar modest but evocative treatment to Cape Town, South Africa, where, as Bendjelloul found out, Rodriguez is not only comparable in fame to the Beatles or Bob Dylan, but considered in a higher artistic class than the Rolling Stones and Elvis Presley. Songs like “I Wonder” and “The Establishment Blues” soundtracked, as various talking heads attest, the struggle against apartheid, and the fandom surrounding Rodriguez lead to a record store owner and a music critic finding out that Rodriguez was alive and kicking, doing manual labor in a particularly downtrodden section of Detroit.
Bendjelloul takes care to characterize both the chief geographical locations of this strange and strangely inspiring tale, but he also strives to touch on a cornucopia of themes, beginning but certainly not limited to the indeterminable nuances of the music industry and varied personas that nest within it. There's a positively electrifying interview near the middle of the film, wherein Sussex founder Clarence Avant, when faced with questions about royalties from South African sales that didn't go to Rodriguez, essentially says that he doesn't care what happened and nobody else would either. In contrast, producer Steve Rowland gushes about Rodriguez, praises one of his songs, “Cause,” as the saddest song he's ever heard and ruminates on how Rodriguez wasn't a Top 10 success with genuine frustration.
The film does an admirable, if a bit uneven job of looping themes of money, art, lifestyle, and myth together, and when Bendjelloul finally sits down and gets to interview his humble, elusive subject, the payoff is immense. The investigation into Rodriguez's disappearance from the music scene isn't given to detailed process, but is rather used as an excited build-up to the interview and footage of the musician's triumphant late-1990s tour of South Africa. It works not unlike an audience chanting a rock band's name in those anticipatory moments between when the lights go down in the stadium and the band takes to the stage.
Despite crafting a consistently engaging film, the director doesn't present the full scope of Rodriguez's life, especially when it comes to the time between when the musician was dropped from his labels and was rediscovered living after years of recreational mythologizing, and seeing as Rodriguez's music draws influence from the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison, the film would have benefitted for some more discussion of why the records didn't sell in America. In lieu of this sort of discussion, or a more in-depth treatment of Detroit's influence on the musician, Bendjelloul seems to obsess on the money, and it's here that it becomes brutally clear that the filmmaker could learn a lot more from his subject.
An erstwhile philosophy major and continued believer in working-class living, Rodriguez approaches the subject of money with near-saintly ambivalence, as he continues to live in the same poverty-stricken area he's always lived in and has given away a great deal of the money from his South Africa tour to charity. Still, Bendjelloul pesters his subject with questions about unseen profits and unclaimed fame, while structuring the film around questions of what Rodriguez is owed. By seemingly putting the things his subject cares least about front and center, Bedjelloul not only loosens the focus of his story, but also, perhaps inadvertently, stresses his own fascination and interest in money above the selfless priorities of Rodriguez, whose humbleness as a true artist sets an uncommon, deeply moving example.