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Searching for Sugar Man

The Bob Dylan of South Africa was from Detroit, says a new documentary.

DIRECTED BY MALIK BENDJELLOUL

Detroit folk singer Sixto Rodríguez wasn’t exactly living the life of a rock star when he hung up his guitar to work as a demolition man in the early 1970s. Though his two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, were reasonably well received by critics, they barely sold a dozen copies between them. At least that’s what the artist thought. What Rodríguez didn’t know was that his anti-establishment anthems were some of the hottest and most frequently banned songs in South Africa during apartheid.

Searching for Sugar Man is a charming and often very moving look at the circumstances by which an unknown American artist came to be the South African equivalent of Bob Dylan. It’s buoyed, to that end, by its likable subject, as well as by the cadre of South African men who’ve studied his image on the Cold Fact cover with the intensity of naval codebreakers. Though Rodriguez is initially thought dead by his greatest fans—from a gruesome onstage self-immolation, no less—he turns out to be alive, well, and humble to the extent that he’s still living in the same town where fame last left him. He hardly even registers the unfairness of his subsistence living, seeming only mildly disappointed by the lack of royalty cheques.

Director Malik Bendjelloul runs a reasonably tight ship here, keeping Rodríguez’s new dawn under wraps as long as possible. That makes for a good story, but not necessarily an honest one. The filmmaker cheats a bit by fudging the timeline of Rodriguez’s belated discovery: he ascribes it to the dawn of the internet, when in fact Rodríguez began touring outside the States as early as 1979. The film also sidesteps Rodriguez’s substantial Australian popularity altogether, presumably in the interest of time. Still, there’s an underlying truth to the idea that Rodríguez is someone who’s very much still being sought and found, regardless of when and where the second wind came. Anyone who sees this modest film, which has become a respectable indie hit, will be heartened to know its soundtrack is the artist’s highest charting release ever. It only took 40 years.

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