A documentary by Malik Bendjelloul. Rated PG.
The sweet fellow of the title here is actually an anonymous drug dealer immortalized in a pop song from 1970. But the singer himself, it turns out, is almost as obscure. In that year and the next, a gritty Detroit songwriter known only as Rodriguez (first name Sixto, but he also used Jesus) released two albums on the Sussex label. Featuring a singer-guitarist who sounded like a cross between Donovan and José Feliciano, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality got good reviews and then, like Rodriguez, sank without a trace.
As with many other “facts” about this enigmatic artist, that last conclusion is not strictly true. In the locked-down South Africa of the 1970s and ’80s, smuggled copies of these albums, usually bootlegged on cassettes, became virtual soundtracks to the anti-apartheid movement among young whites. And Searching for Sugar Man details the obsession of two formerly young South Africans, journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom and Stephen “Sugarman” Segerman, who runs a hip record store in Cape Town.
With innovative Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul following their steps—and adding his own animated (and occasionally musical) touches—these two tracked down Rodriguez producers Steve Rowland and Dennis Coffey, among others, to find out what became of the singer, rumoured to have killed himself at a gig. The most dramatic interrogation is with Sussex and Tabu honcho Clarence Avant, a former Motown chief who later signed Bill Withers and Kool & the Gang. When asked what happened to royalties from a half-million records sold overseas, he is both intimidating and evasive.
Other pages in this odd pop-music chapter remain vague, in keeping with Rodriguez’s man-of-mystery persona. But what the various searchers eventually encountered adds up to one of the most oddly inspiring developments in rock ’n’ roll history. Don’t read any more about the film. Just go see it.
Watch the trailer for Searching for Sugar Man.