To loosely adulterate Freud, sometimes a movie is not just a movie, as is the case with an extraordinary documentary called Searching for Sugar Man, the story of a Detroit native, singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, whose career never took off in the United States, but who became an enormous viral sensation in South Africa way before the internet or personal computers.
It was way back in 1970 when the American-born, Chicano Bob Dylan cut an album entitled "Cold Fact," which in fact proved to be quite a cold item at retail indeed. But as this compelling film informs us, someone/somehow brought a copy from the States to South Africa, and in a matter of months Rodriguez's gently sung tales of sex, drugs and social protest had become the #1 soundtrack for a generation of disaffected white kids (Afrikaners) appalled by conditions in that apartheid nation.
At the time, censorship had a stranglehold on the media under the über-repressive regime, and Rodriguez's really quite innocuous music was banned — which of course only made it more desirable, so much so that some estimates figure nearly a million copies of "Cold Fact" changed hands in the ensuing years. But a looming question remained: Who was this enigmatic singer, virtually unknown in his own country, and where in the world was he to be found?
Thus, the title of this deeply affecting film, as director Malik Bendjelloul turns the search for the legendary singer into the "Where's Waldo" of the folk-rock era. Alongside fanatical Cape Town record-shop owner Stephen "Sugar Man" Segerman (whose nickname derives from one of Rodriguez's songs), a search is initiated for information on the artist, whom some said had killed himself onstage many years ago. Spoiler alert! He is indeed still kicking, and in fine form to this very day.
As the film unspools, so does the man's music, a kind of Dylan meets Jose Feliciano hybrid, girded by acoustic guitar strumming, tasteful string arrangements and the sweetly muted anger of the poetic Sixto Rodriguez. And finally, the sleuths find their beloved troubadour, who has passed the intervening decades anonymously, doing construction work and living a hardscrabble life in a dilapidated house in Detroit's inner city. We meet his three impressive, grown daughters along the way, his record producers and then Rodriguez himself, who thereupon mounts a rabidly received tour of the African country where he was once regarded to have been "bigger than Elvis."
Sadly, no one took notice of his strangely isolated success across the ocean some fifty years ago — not even Rodriguez himself, who to this day has never received any royalties for his record sales there. All of that matters little once the long-lost cultural hero finds his way to South Africa to perform, and is received with such an outpouring of love and devotion, one would have to have a heart of stone not to weep at the fairy-tale ending. He is a sweet and humble soul who was a rock star but never knew it, and his tale is as moving as it is unbelievable. Long live Rodriguez!