I had never heard of the musician Sixto Rodriguez before watching “Searching for Sugar Man,” the recipient of both the American Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award for Best Documentary in 2013. The film tells the story of Rodriguez, a Mexican-American singer, songwriter, guitarist, and poet from Detroit whose music was successful for a brief time in the U.S. But, after being dropped from his record label, Rodriguez disappeared, causing some to think he had committed suicide.
What the movie reveals is the mystery of what happened to this most thoughtful of singers whose music reflected the alienation of the inner city poor and the pain of being marginalized. Perhaps this is why Rodriguez’s music, unbeknownst to him, was resonating a continent away in South Africa, as the soundtrack of the apartheid resistance movement. Rodriguez was so popular during the mid-1970s in South Africa that his albums were said to be more popular than Elvis’s. Yet Rodriguez never benefited from this success or even knew about it. Instead he was scraping by as a laborer demolishing buildings in Detroit.
The late Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul brilliantly lays out this story. Through beautiful filming, animation, and interviews, “Searching for Sugar Man” evokes a deep connection to Rodriguez both as a person and musician. By understanding Rodriguez, one can understand his relevance in South Africa. But there’s something else at work in this film and I think that’s what makes it so special. The filmmaker knew he was dealing with someone extraordinary and he gave Rodriguez the space to reveal himself. No set-ups, no manipulation, no phony walks on the beach. Just Rodriguez, in his own world, for all the world to see.