The history of rock music is littered with artists who sold few albums during their lifespan but eventually had an impact far beyond their sales figures. Brian Eno famously said that very few people bought the Velvet Underground’s first album but all of them went out and started a band. The deliberately robotic, all-electronic German band Kraftwerk had only one mainstream hit in the US, 1975’s “Autobahn,” but its music clicked with African-American communities in the Bronx and Detroit, influencing techno and early hip-hop.
Detroit-based singer and songwriter Rodriguez, the subject of the documentary “Searching For Sugar Man,” released two albums in the early ‘70s, which bombed in the US, but, unbeknownst to him, sold half a million copies in apartheid-era South Africa. His protest songs, inspired by the decay of Detroit, helped South African musicians find their own creative voice to fight back against their government in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“Searching For Sugar Man” is structured, in something of an artificial fashion, like a mystery dating back to the 1990s. The director seems to have made it for an audience that doesn’t know Rodriguez is still alive. However, I can’t imagine it playing to anyone other than fans of singer/ songwriters of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Despite the reissue of his two albums by the Light in the Attic label in 2009, Rodriguez remains obscure in the US.
The film begins with director Malik Bendjelloul talking to a record store owner nicknamed “Sugar” (after “Sugar Man,” the Rodriguez song from which the film takes its name) and investigating the lurid rumors South African fans had for years told themselves about Rodriguez’s onstage suicide. Even a chat with Clarence Avant, the owner of Rodriguez’s American label Sussex Records, doesn’t clear up the question of where he is. Only when a webmaster who runs a Rodriguez fan site receives a message from his daughter Eva do the artist’s whereabouts become evident. In turn, Rodriguez, learning of his popularity in South Africa, tours arenas there in 1998.
“Searching For Sugar Man” is an optimistic film about the counterculture of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, managing to rescue the notion of music as a force for political change from the dustbin of cliché and baby boomer self-congratulation. It helps that the film’s subject is such an obscure artist and that it focuses on his impact in South Africa. The fact that Bendjelloul is Swedish — and, given his name, presumably of Arab descent — adds another layer to the cross-cultural interplay. Like last year’s Swedish-made “The Black Power Mixtape,” “Searching For Sugar Man” excavates America’s buried legacy of radical politics.
Rodriguez has frequently been compared to Bob Dylan, but Phil Ochs is the singer whom he most closely resembles. The documentary “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune,” released last year, portrayed the singer/ songwriter as a ‘60s casualty, unable to adjust when his utopian dreams didn’t come true and the times grew more conservative. Its final third showed Ochs mired in alcoholism, paranoia (perhaps justified), and depression, culminating in suicide.
By contrast, Rodriguez is a survivor. The song “Sugar Man” is an ode to a drug dealer, but if he overindulged in the sugar man’s treats, the film never mentions it. Rodriguez seems to have taken the American commercial failure of his two albums in stride. (He began a third album but never finished it, and the film doesn’t go into the story of its making.) He returned to working-class life but remained politically active, even running for mayor of Detroit in 1981. His daughters testify that although they grew up poor, he took them to libraries and museums. Interviewed by Bendjelloul, he says he’s not sure the stardom and money he should have enjoyed from his South African success would have changed his life for the better. His interview segments are notable for how taciturn he seems; Rodriguez comes across at once as both aloof and humble.
“Searching For Sugar Man” may play like a thriller at times, but despite the hints of suicide and despair, it comes with a happy ending. Once Rodriguez introduces himself into the picture, the film’s personality changes. It becomes a portrait of a man who outlasted his times and went on to live in peace, unlike Ochs or Janis Joplin (about whom he wrote a tribute song of sorts). In his trip to South Africa, he finds an unlikely kind of homecoming few of us are likely to be lucky enough to experience.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN | Directed by Malik Bendjelloul | Sony Pictures Classics | Opens Jul. 27 | The Angelika, 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St.; angelikafi