Searching for Sugar Man is the remarkable film of Rodriguez, a Detroit based singer-songwriter, tipped for the top by his record label and the critics, but whose 1970 and ’71 albums failed commercially: except, and without his knowledge, in South Africa where his socially concious Dylanesque lyrics, delivered in a style that leans a little toward Neil Diamond, took off big style.
It is hard to believe that an artist’s records could sell in large numbers somewhere in the world without his knowledge, but South Africa was a fascist state at the time where popular music was effectively banned — especially music that challenged the establishment — and later cultural boycotts left the country further isolated. Into this void had stepped a large and sophisticated bootleg industry, that did very well out of Rodriguez while the artist himself scraped a subsidence living as a labourer in one of the United States’ most depressed cities. Only with the collapse of Apartheid and the advent of the internet did this situation change. South African fans had believed Rodriguez dead, his legend enhanced by stories of a gruesome on stage death by self-immolation. But in 1998 Rodriguez’s daughter stumbled across a fansite dedicated to her father and the rest is history.
So Searching for Sugar Man is the story of loyal fans’ desperate search to discover more about their idol and delighting to find him alive. Rodriguez belatedly achieves stardom and while he never receives the royalties on all those album sales he does play to tens of thousands over a series of sell-out gigs. It is a wonderful film — I nearly cried — a rags to riches story with the strangest of plots.
And that fansite is now Rodriguez online home and Rodriguez tours the world.