Rodriquez. Don’t know the name? Join the club. Hailed as the next Bob Dylan when former Motown chief Clarence Avant signed him in the late 1960s, the Detroit based musician (full name Sixto Rodriguez) had two albums released, in 1971 and 1972. Rave reviews failed to translate into wow sales. It didn’t help that this painfully shy son of a Mexican immigrant often sang and played guitar with his back to the audience. Rodriquez drifted quietly into oblivion. Except in South Africa, where his protest songs struck a chord with a nation struggling under apartheid. But Rodriquez never got wind of his success there or received any royalties. Rumor had it that he was dead, and had maybe even shot himself on stage.
For these reasons and more, Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul set out to track down this enigma and fill in the blanks of his astonishing story. The result, Searching for Sugar Man, is a fresh and unexpected documentary that plays like a nail-biting mystery and a ticket to ride the whirlwind where art and commerce do battle. The title derives from the 1970 song, “Sugar Man,” that Rodriquez wrote about a drug dealer and his world. But don’t do an Internet search into Rodriquez and his lyrics until you let this movie work its way into your mind and heart. Just hearing the likes of “I Wonder,” “Inner City Blues” and “A Most Disgusting Song” should light a fire under the film’s thrilling soundtrack. But it’s getting to know Rodriquez himself that gives Searching for Sugar Man its emotional force. It’ll get to you.