Dec. 5 2012 12:00 AM

Doc on Detroit folk singer is stranger than fiction


Fourteen years ago, a poverty-stricken demolition worker from Detroit took the stage of a South African arena. He stood there, guitar in hand, while the thousands in attendance drowned out his attempt to launch into a song. They showered him with a five-minute ovation, screaming his name and shouting that they loved him while he slowly took it all in. 

The man’s name, Sixto Rodriguez, was bigger in that country than Elvis Presley’s or Bob Dylan’s — but everyone believed he had committed suicide 20 years prior. His sudden reappearance after so long had created a national media frenzy that left many wondering: Could this be an imposter? 

“Searching for Sugar Man” is a stranger-than-fiction documentary about Rodriguez, a singer/songwriter whose music transcended the art form. Besides being good damned music, it also lit a fire under a nation embroiled in one of the 20th century’s most notorious socio-political upheavals. Rodriguez’s music may not have launched the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, but it did become popular at just the right time to inspire an entire generation that was beginning to turn against its violently racist national culture. And it was all done without Rodriguez even knowing his music had made it overseas. 

In the early 1970s, Rodriguez was discovered singing in a smoke-filled bar near the Detroit River. He was soft-spoken, humble and shy (he often played with his back to the audience), but his ethereal voice and haunting lyrics earned him the attention of high level music executives who sensed stardom in him. They got him in the studio where he recorded two dynamic albums that the critics loved but listeners ignored. Then Rodriguez quietly faded back into obscurity. 

However, his music somehow made it to Cape Town, South Africa, where his oblique drug references and immodest lyrics such as, “I wonder how many times you had sex/ And I wonder do you know who’ll be next,” made him a bootleg viral hit. Of course, once the authorities caught on, his music was summarily banned, which only made it that much hotter. Nothing makes kids love stuff more than if they know it pisses off the authorities. A South African label picked up the albums, sold 500,000 copies, and mailed the royalties off to the States, to be divvied amongst the presumed deceased’s family.

“Sugar Man” takes place mostly in the mid-‘90s as two South African fans — a record store owner and a journalist — form an unlikely bond and join forces in finding out what really happened to Rodriguez. Interviews include former government censors who show how tracks on his album were defaced with scissors to keep stations from playing them and American music producers who are as befuddled as anyone how the albums failed to take off. 

The director, Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, deftly incorporates nearly a dozen of Rodriguez’s tracks into the film, leaving the audience wondering the same thing. Why weren’t these songs hits? It’s a testament to both the finicky nature of show business, where sometimes lightning doesn’t strike despite all the right ingredients being there, and to underlying racist sentiments in America (one exec thinks Rodriguez’s name kept a lot of people away — “No one was playing Mexican music at the time.”)

What the movie lacks, however, is teeth. It’s made all but explicit that the owner of Rodriguez’s former label pocketed all the overseas royalties — they even land an interview with him and ask him as much— but the guy is allowed to double talk his way out of it. Additionally, it could be inferred that the gory tales of Rodriguez’s suicide —with methods of death ranging from self-immolation on stage to a pill overdose in prison — were manufactured by the South African government,  which hoped to quell interest in his work. However, no one bothers to ask the big question of where the rumors started. Perhaps there’s still lingering fear of reprisal in South Africa? 

As for that demolition worker: he’s back in Detroit, living in a shack, fanning the flames of a tiny stove with a piece of cardboard to keep himself warm. He’s 70 years old now, hiding himself behind long hair and wide black glasses. But as he walks down the unshoveled streets of Detroit on his way to gut another building, you can’t help thinking he looks kinda like that guy on the cover of that album that no one you know has ever heard of. 

“Searching for Sugar Man”
Celebration! Cinema Lansing & IMAX
Through Dec. 13
200 E. Edgewood Blvd.
(517) 393-7469