Aug. 15 2012 03:11 PM

It's clear why Malik Bendjelloul's new documentary was a hit at Sundance

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The mysterious Rodriguez

One of the most interesting things about the new documentary Searching for Sugar Man is actually never remarked upon in the film. The movie features recent interviews about a unique set of circumstances that started four decades ago and ended more than 25 years later. It's a pretty amazing story, the likes of which probably won't occur again due to the current state of technology.

Back in 1970, a Detroit singer-songwriter called Rodriguez released the album Cold Fact. He was soulful and intelligent, his lyrics were intriguing, personal and anti-establishment, and everyone who met him—all the producers and record-label guys who worked with him—thought he was the second coming of Bob Dylan. To be fair, Rodriguez's music is something like a cross between Dylan and Donovan, but it sounds like a classic album from those times, and you'll probably wonder why you haven't heard it before. Cold Fact flopped dramatically, just like his second and final album, and, according to rock 'n' roll legend, Rodriguez ended up taking his own life.

Here's where it gets interesting. Even though they had zero success stateside, Rodriguez's records were wholeheartedly embraced by white Afrikaners who were struggling against South Africa's Apartheid regime. Stephen "Sugar" Segerman, a record-store owner in Capetown, likens Rodriguez's popularity in South Africa to that of The Beatles or Simon & Garfunkel. Rodriguez's South African fans knew almost nothing about the artist himself, though, and no one involved with the two records had any idea that in one particular region of the world, they were incredibly influential and important.

That by itself is pretty amazing, but it gets better. In the mid '90s, Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom teamed up to find out how Rodriguez died. Armed with nothing more than old liner notes, they eventually found one of Rodriguez's producers, who was shocked to discover how popular the record was. This was tougher than it sounds. Remember, Google didn't launch until 1998. Wikipedia wasn't around until 2001. Smartphones weren't always our technological overlords. This sort of knowledge hasn't always been so easily available, and the way they eventually sleuthed the necessary information is less Sherlock Holmes and more High Fidelity.

More importantly, the South Africans were finally able to ask questions of someone who has firsthand knowledge of this legendary figure. Yes, the truth about Rodriguez comes out, and if you haven't read about it or figured it out on your own, I think it's best that I don't spoil it here. But I'll say this: Those truths lead to things that no one involved in either country could have dreamed of. And we, the audience, are better off for it.

As a director, Bendjelloul knows how to spin a story. Three time periods—the early '70s, when the albums were recorded and took hold in South Africa; the mid-to-late '90s, when Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom began their search; and the present, when Bendjelloul has compiled his film—are represented through interviews, archival footage and animated sequences (I found the latter unnecessary) and seamlessly woven together, like a perfectly calibrated album track list. 

Essentially, the director has managed to take multiple narratives that span decades and nicely tie them together in a way that's powerful and emotional. There are some elements of Rodriguez's life that I wish he had explored more deeply, but I'm not particularly bothered by that, because I'd prefer to put it aside and truly appreciate this for what it is, a musical mystery that, when solved, introduces you to an artist you wish you had known about for years. 

Write to anders@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com. You can follow Anders on Twitter at @anderswright.

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