The music industry is littered with tragedies but few are likely to have as sweet or redemptive a career arc as Detroit folk-rocker Sixto Rodriguez. The ultimate underdog triumph, Searching For Sugar Man follows the investigative efforts of a few South African fans out to parse out the truth from the myth surrounding the Mexican-American artist who was a nobody at home in the US, but bigger than Elvis in South Africa. Never paid a cent for his work, legend suggested that he died penniless one night when he put a gun to his head on stage.
The late 60s and early 70s might seem barren ground for new rock narratives but Sugar Man indicates the era might have a few untold stories yet, moving the setting away from the familiar counter cultural environs of San Francisco or London. It might be easy to mock like making it ‘big in Japan’, but Rodriguez’s impact on young white liberals in South Africa gives him a largely untapped layer of political starpower – he’s credited by most interviewees as helping kickstart the country’s anti-apartheid movement when his lyrics spreads through student dorms – and also adds a few, fresh sympathetic layers to the image of white south Africans.
The heartrending rags-to-overdue-riches tale will be tough for most to resist but much of Sugar Man’s appeal comes from the romance of how its subject is cleverly kept at a distance. As befitting the pre-internet age Rodriguez arrived in, director Malik Benjeloull muddies the facts even as they appear to be getting clarified. But if the film causes you to mourn an earlier, more romantic, misinformation age, Sugar Man’s real appeal comes in the message of hope it offers to all crestfallen artists everywhere. Whether Japan or South Africa, the film offers the promise of making it big in foreign climes. The people closest to you might not want you, but there will be someone, somewhere, who does.