Early in the documentary Searching For Sugar Man, retired record producer Steve Rowland gushes praise for the enigma that was the artist known simply as Rodriguez. He cues up a piece of vinyl to demonstrate his point. He says it is the saddest song he has ever heard. Indeed, its sadness is palpable. One line stands above the rest. “The sweetest kiss I ever got is the one I’ve never tasted.” It underlines how director Malik Bendjelloul is making a sad film – a sad film, though, that by the rules of life is allowed a fantasy-like happy ending.
Sixto Rodriguez was a lone man with a guitar and gnarly shades in hardscrabble Detroit of the 1970’s. Charisma was not necessarily his specialty. More than once it is noted he played with his back to the audience. But he possessed boundless talent. Everyone interviewed discusses him in reverent terms, suggesting he floats above even the hallowed plain of Bob Dylan. Perhaps that is exaggeration, but Rodriguez’s music, which covers most of the frames of the film, does evoke a less opaque, more straight-forward Dylan whose rhymes have that hard-to-copy grace where despite their obviousness they still feel effortless. So why did he never hit the big time? Why were his two albums not so much flops as they were euthanized on arrival? Why was he until the existence of this documentary virtually unknown in America?
A parallel narrative emerges. It is a narrative built on legend and hearsay but also built on emotional truth. Steve “Sugar” Segerman, a Capetown, South Africa equivalent of High Fidelity’s Rob Gordon, recounts the tall tale of how someone’s American girlfriend flew past the pent-up walls of his country at the heart of apartheid with a Rodriguez record and that is how, supposedly, an utterly unknown Motor City troubadour became tonic to an artistically repressed culture on the other side of the world. More than once he is described as being bigger than Elvis.
But who was he? Where was he? Where did he come from? Why did he record no new albums? What happened to him? More tall tales emerged, such as explicit stories of Rodriguez committing suicide onstage, ranging from putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger to setting himself on fire. Segerman and compatriots decide to dig deeper and do so by, as they say, “following the money.” If Rodriguez’s albums are selling so well in South Africa, who’s getting the money back home? An interview with Clarence Avant, former head of Rodriguez’s record label, is a squirm-inducing affair wherein Avant seems willing to admit Rodriguez’s genius but reluctant to admit where any money that this genius might have been owed went.
If there is a flaw to the film it is that upon the peeling back of the curtain of the mystery of Rodriguez, there is not much pulling back of the curtain of Rodriguez himself. Much of the information relayed seems surface level, if poignant, and we are offered not much more than a glimpse into the psyche that would have composed these songs and led this life. Yet, oddly, this very flaw also works to showcase the nature of Rodriguez, and maybe that is good enough.
Besides, Searching For Sugar Man is as much about the search and more so about what led to the search. It is about one nation and certain people of that nation who by some cosmic coincidence found something they needed exactly when they needed it and treasured it and lifted it up into something bigger than one man. And by doing so, they helped in keeping that one man alive.
South Africa allowed Rodriguez to taste that sweet kiss he thought he couldn’t get.