Mystery is a powerful, sometimes essential weapon in the arsenal of a cult artist. But what happens when great artists’ legacies are so enigmatic that no one seems to know whether they’re dead or alive, retired or making the most important art of their lives in absolute secrecy? What happens when the case grows so cold that even an artist’s most devoted fans are left salivating for the tiniest morsel of information about their idol? Those are some of the questions behind Searching For Sugar Man, a moving documentary about spookily talented Detroit singer-songwriter Sixto Diaz Rodriguez (professionally known simply as Rodriguez), who released two albums of gorgeous, Bob Dylan-esque social commentary and moody, downbeat lyricism to deafening silence in the United States in the early 1970s. When those albums failed to find an audience, he disappeared from the public eye, amid rumors that he’d killed himself onstage or overdosed. While Rodriguez lingered in obscurity in the States, he rocketed to super-stardom in South Africa, where his anti-establishment rhetoric and soulful defiance resonated with a youth movement in open revolt against the legalized bigotry of Apartheid.
Searching For Sugar Man cultivates an air of mystery around Rodriguez by strategically and deliberately withholding information about its subject for maximum emotional impact, a technique that’s maddening, dishonest, and extraordinarily effective. For the film’s first half, Rodriguez isn’t a man so much as a spirit, an unfairly forgotten poet-philosopher whose disappearance created an ever-growing legend.
Like its subject’s music, the first half of Searching For Sugar Man can be hauntingly sad, but in its second, the story morphs from tragedy to triumph. Searching For Sugar Man would be worth seeing just for Rodriguez’s unjustly forgotten music, which is affecting in ways that make it hard to believe he could have been ignored in his home country for so long. Though unabashedly manipulative in its storytelling and structure, Searching For Sugar Man ultimately earns its happy ending and buzzy, crowd-pleasing populist appeal by alchemizing trembling inner-city pain into transcendent international beauty.