- - Thursday, August 2, 2012

According to South African record-store owner Stephen Segerman, a search through a liberal white South African’s record collection in the mid-1970s reliably would yield three albums: “Abbey Road” by the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “Cold Fact” by Rodriguez.

“To many of us South Africans,” Mr. Segerman says, “[Rodriguez] was the soundtrack to our lives.”

Mr. Segerman, who was born into the baby boom generation that saw the racist doctrine of apartheid rot and eventually die, is one of the main voices in “Searching for Sugar Man,” a documentary about the search for the elusive and, outside of South Africa, forgotten folk artist Sixto Rodriguez, a charismatic and gifted songwriter who emerged from Detroit in the early 1970s but never caught fire with American audiences.

For reasons that remain obscure, Mr. Rodriguez, whose albums identified him simply as Rodriguez, achieved a smashing success in South Africa, selling more than a half-million copies of his records. Rodriguez’s folk-inspired music, laden with coded drug references and oblique calls for revolution, apparently resonated with the burgeoning white counterculture that was starting to agitate for change. Music writer Craig Bartholomew-Strydom said, “In South Africa, ‘Cold Fact’ was the album that gave people permission to free their minds and start thinking.”

South Africa was then isolated from international currents in popular music. Because of an enduring boycott by leading international acts, it was not the least bit surprising that Rodriguez never toured in South Africa. A pervasive rumor had it that he had committed suicide onstage, either by gunshot or self-immolation, during a concert.

But as detective work by Mr. Segerman and Mr. Bartholomew-Strydom eventually showed, Rodriguez didn’t go out in a blaze of glory, he merely faded away. His career ebbed in the United States, and he returned to the life of a manual laborer in his native Detroit. This is presented as the central mystery in the first half of the documentary, but the comeback of Rodriguez is moderately well known among American music buffs. He last appeared in Washington in 2009, when his albums were reissued on CD. (Esteemed local arts journalist Kriston Capps was tapped to play saxophone on the East Coast leg of that tour.) Rodriguez is scheduled to make another visit on Aug. 30, performing at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue.

Director Malik Bendjelloul spends rather too much time belaboring the search for Rodriguez and less on the man himself. His early publicity photographs reveal a man of rare beauty and allure — a natural star. His daughters and those who know him in Detroit provide the most insight into his character. One daughter shares memories of watching him descend a staircase with a refrigerator strapped to his back. A co-worker recalls the dignity and sense of importance he brought to manual labor.

What’s interesting is that even after decades as a laborer, out of the limelight, Rodriguez retains much of his star aura. He’s elusive, self-effacing and full of contradiction, but he doesn’t come across as entirely unknowable.

Mr. Bendjelloul paints Rodriguez in miniature, without giving a sense of who the man is, how he feels about his abortive musical career or returning to the limelight in late middle age, and how he felt about his music having been an inspiration to a generation of South Africans struggling with their complicity in the apartheid system.

Still, “Searching for Sugar Man” is compelling both as a detective story and as an example of the enduring power of music.


TITLE: “Searching for Sugar Man”

CREDITS: Directed by Malik Bendjelloul

RATING: PG-13 for language

RUNNING TIME: 86 minutes


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