The rise and fall and rise of Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez is an irresistible tale, at least as told in Searching for Sugar Man by Swedish TV director and first-time feature documentarian Malik Bendjelloul. In fact, the yarn is too irresistible: We’re fed plenty of sugar in this authorized fairy tale, but are left hungry for beef.
As assembled with the wide-eyed enthusiasm of a foreign visitor exploring the exotic American landscape of rusting Motown, the movie presents Rodriguez as an enigmatic singer-songwriter with Dylan-esque sensibilities, discovered in the 1970s and then forgotten in America — but revered in South Africa, his image enhanced by rumors of suicide. Then two South African admirers tracked him down, alive and working in hometown Detroit — as a laborer! (One of the two sleuths is proud to have discovered that “Dearborn,” mentioned in a lyric, is a place in Michigan.) And in 1998 the pair brought Rodriguez to Cape Town to play a triumphant concert during which, footage reveals and his three mediagenic adult daughters confirm, the lanky, soft-spoken fellow was treated like rock royalty. It’s a lovely, touching sight. But it’s not enough. What really stalled the man’s career? What was he like to work with? Do those daughters have a mother? Interested parties might want to keep searching. B-