“How do you feel about knowing that you weren’t aware of something that could’ve changed your life?”
This was the question posed to the folk musician Sixto Rodriguez in the fascinating documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” Worded a certain way, it’s a question usually directed at the guy who skipped out on his big chance or blew it altogether. For Rodriguez, he never even knew.
Rodriguez was a folk rocker based in Detroit in the late ‘60s with a poet’s spirit and Bob Dylan’s voice, but the people who saw him perform thought of him as a homeless drifter. He performed with his back to the audience in smoky bars down sketchy pockets of Detroit, and yet he got discovered and recorded “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality” in 1970 and 1971.
Maybe it was his Latin name or maybe it was overproduction in the backing tracks, but Rodriguez got a raw deal. One successful Motown producer who worked with all the greats said he was one of the most memorable artists he worked with, but the album probably sold six copies.
And yet in South Africa, “Cold Fact” was passed around in bootleg copies until Rodriguez was in every record collection beside the other two most popular albums in South Africa, “Abbey Road” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The riot imagery seen during the apartheid era look very similar to American racial riots in the ‘60s, and now they even had an equivalent soundtrack.
Without a word of his whereabouts or a shred of information to go on, Rodriguez’s rise to stardom came along with a mythical reputation, one that presumed he had died in a spectacular on-stage suicide.
The film’s search for Rodriguez then is like chasing the wind, a detective story wrapped in mystery and the artist’s wistful and profound spirit. It tells a too-good-to-be-true story with as much vigor and praise as it does because it recognizes that the myth is more important, valuable and beautiful than the man.
It has an unbelievable twist of circumstance that is purely inspirational. Even in an impossible scenario such as this, how do we as people work to keep mystique and magic in the world alive?
Nominated for this year’s Best Documentary Oscar and likely to win, “Searching for Sugar Man” moves to the strum of it’s own guitar, a catchy, memorable and moving work of art that can instill spirit and wonder.
3 ½ stars