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'Searching for Sugarman' offers intriguing storyline

Date: 3/21/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

The Academy Award winner for best feature documentary is the subject of this week's movie review column.

Searching for Sugarman

There are few stories more compelling than those of talented people who, through a mix of events, miss grabbing that brass ring of success. "Searching for Sugarman" is such a story and the film certainly deserves your time if you are looking for an intriguing tale.

Sixto Rodriguez is a Detroit-born musician who cut two albums in 1970 and 1971 that went nowhere sales-wise in the United States. With the pop poetry sensibilities of a Bob Dylan that spoke of urban life and a solid singing voice, at least on paper Rodriguez had what he needed to succeed.

Looking at the best selling albums of the 1970s, which included "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," "Abbey Road," and "Santana," Rodriguez's "Cold Fact" should have been a hit.

After a second album that sold poorly, Rodriguez was dropped from his label and seemingly dropped from sight. Unknown to him, his albums had been licensed to record companies in South Africa where the popularity of his work elevated him to be a superstar and the subject of myth.

Rodriguez supposedly had committed suicide or drifted into some sort of obscurity, according to his South African fans.

Considering that South Africa before the end of apartheid was essentially a closed-to-the-world dictatorship, one could understand how South African fans would invent such tales.

It was their adoration that intrigued Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, who learned of the story and the dedication of several South African fans, to find Rodriguez and bring him to South Africa for a series of concerts in 1998. This film is about that effort and about Rodriguez's life today.

I really enjoyed the film although it didn't provide me with quite enough about the man himself and sort of skates around several points. Critic Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian noted that Rodriguez actually had a second wind as a performer in 1979 and 1981 when his albums were released in Australia and he toured there, but that isn't mentioned in the film.

Also Bendjelloul doesn't say that Rodriguez's initial tours in South Africa were followed performances in Sweden, where a documentary was shot about that tour.

Bendjelloul pointed out that Rodriguez has made a living working construction and demolition in Detroit and that few of the people who knew him were aware of his abilities as a musician. I was wondering why Rodriguez didn't perform locally. Had his experience with the recording industry dishearten him to the extent that he walked away from his music?

There are interesting interviews with his three daughters, but there is no mention of their mother.

The interview with Rodriguez was short and Bendjelloul said in the "making of" feature that Rodriguez was reluctant to be interviewed — it clearly showed. I had hoped that he would have been more forthcoming about his career, especially in light of his success in South Africa. Did he ever think about leveraging that popularity to tackle commercial success here? Rodriguez came across like a man whose has dedicated his life to a personal philosophy of simplicity. Apparently he has given the money he has earned since his re-discovery in 1998 to his family and friends and lives very simply in Detroit. Does he even want commercial success?

The acclaim of this motion picture has been the springboard the 70 year-old singer has needed to get some attention and reportedly he has new songs he wants to showcase in an album.

Although I had some problems with the film, its central story is solid and Rodriguez's tale is refreshing and welcomed.