Music biographies usually fall into two camps: a rags-to-riches (and perhaps back to rags) saga of a star, or the life struggles of someone who never achieved the fame or recognition he deserved.
Searching for Sugar Man offers a third option: It tells the story of early '70s Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, who toiled in oblivion and poverty in the U.S. while, unbeknownst to him, becoming a legend in the southern hemisphere, especially South Africa, where he was considered the equal to the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel. To top it off, many South Africans believed that Rodriguez had committed suicide onstage when, in reality, he was living a reclusive life in Michigan.
It's a fascinating story artfully told in Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul's engaging documentary/detective story. In South Africa, he investigates exactly why Rodriguez (much of whose socially aware folk-rock was banned from government radio in the apartheid era) became such a word-of-mouth sensation. Meanwhile, in the U.S., he tries to find out what happened to all the South African royalties supposedly sent to Rodriguez. And, finally, Bendjelloul talks to the man himself and his family.
Rodriguez fans in Australia and New Zealand, where the singer was also popular, might feel a bit miffed that they're not mentioned. But, for most Americans, the film is a revelation. His compelling music and voice are all over the soundtrack, offering a potent reminder that the best isn't always the best-known.
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Cary Darling, 817-390-7571