Obscure singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez’s rock n’ roll suicide was the stuff of urban legend. Some swear they saw him shoot himself onstage, while others claim he doused himself in lighter fluid and lit a match. Dropped by Sussex Records after two well-reviewed LPs—1970’s Cold Fact and 1971’s Coming from Reality—failed to catch on to mainstream audiences, not even rumors of such a dramatic demise afforded this Detroit troubadour so much as a footnote in American music history.
Not so in South Africa, where Rodriguez’s bootlegged recordings became the voice of the anti-Apartheid youth movement, as popular as Dylan or The Beatles. Director Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man is structured like a documentary detective story, with a couple of rabid Rodriguez fans attempting to find out whatever it was that really happened to their idol.
As Sony Pictures recently sent Rodriguez from city to city on the interview circuit promoting this picture, it’s presumably safe to reveal that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. In actuality, he’s a humble construction worker still living in the same run-down Detroit neighborhood, and this whole South African superstardom thing came as news to him.
It doesn’t seem like much of a big deal, either. He visits the country to play some sold-out arenas, then gives most of the money away and goes back to work in the morning. There’s something unreachable about the soft-spoken Sixto Rodriguez, and Searching for Sugar Man is far too reverent a portrait to poke around asking any serious questions.
Rodriguez’s songs, which are occasionally played for long stretches of the film under some dream-like animated sequences, are just fine, but do start to sound slightly same-y after awhile. It’s hard for us to understand what exactly made Cold Fact such a rallying cry for young South Africans, and Bendjellol isn’t too interested in exploring or even speculating on what it was about Rodriguez’s music that struck such a chord with this particular generation.
Overlong at eighty-five minutes, Searching for Sugar Man is content to breeze along as a pleasant anecdote. It’s so lightweight and underdeveloped, you’ll leave the theatre feeling like they still haven’t found him yet.