This is the information age, but there was a time relatively recently when we didn't know everything about everyone. That air of mystery could be incredibly frustrating, especially, if you're in Cape Town and you want to know more about your favorite musician, an American singer-songwriter called Rodriguez who released two albums in the early 70's and then...nothing. Rumor was that Rodriguez had died, possibly a gruesome suicide on stage from a gunshot wound or self-immolation. So in the mid-90's two South African super-fans became curious enough to work the transatlantic phones and scour enigmatic lyrics to learn Rodriguez's fate. What they found is the thumping, passionate heart of the stirring documentary "Searching For Sugar Man."
Who is Rodriguez? Good question. America was largely indifferent to the folk rock of Sixto Rodriguez, his lyrics informed by his upbringing amidst the decay of Detroit and delivered like the impossible love child of Bob Dylan and James Taylor. In the late 70's, though, Rodriguez's first record, "Cold Fact," somehow reached the shores of South Africa, and its defiant spirit struck a chord with the young Afrikaners fighting the injustice of apartheid. He became, we learn, more popular than Elvis, and "much bigger than the Rolling Stones," according to one fan. "Searching For Sugar Man" balances awed recollections from the South African contingent with the harsh American reality, including sad elegies from colleagues lamenting his lack of success and defensive memories from a seemingly shady record-company executive.
"Searching For Sugar Man" is the first film by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, who proves to be a bit of a poet himself, with bits of "Waltz With Bashir"-type animation woven through unnecessarily gorgeous cinematography. (Making sunny Cape Town look good ain't hard, but the beauty he elicits from rainy, neon-kissed Detroit is otherworldly.) Now, you may be waiting for me to tell you whether they found Rodriguez, and I'm not going to do that. Some questions get answered; some, disappointingly, do not. It's best to put your virtual blinders on (no Wikipedia!) and approach "Searching For Sugar Man" as a mystery, with all the twists, turns, and surprises attendant to that genre, along with the uncomplicated joy found in the tale of a life lived honestly.