Starring: Sixto Rodriguez, Stephen Segerman, Clarence Avant
Directed by: Malik Bendjelloul (debut)
Prophet. Inner-city poet. More popular than Elvis Presley. The numerous ways mysterious Mexican-American folk singer Sixto Rodriguez (also known as Jesús) is passionately described in the fascinating documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” are all heartfelt. From the interviews with producers who reminisce about his short-lived career to the political insight he brought to South African musicians during apartheid, Rodriguez, as captured by first-time filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, is nothing short of a legend.
So, what exactly happened to the man some say was as lyrically gifted as Bob Dylan, but never found the success he deserved in the U.S.? Are the rumors of his on-stage suicide during one of his concerts true or merely part of a larger-than-life myth? Most importantly, what “Sugar Man” attempts to answer is this: Where do unfulfilled dreams go to die? The answer is definitely not to a city like Cape Town, where, unbeknownst to Rodriguez, he had earned cult superstar status only a few years after he was dropped from his record label in the early 1970s.
For those who are unaware of the Detroit-born musician’s life story, Bendjelloul’s overview of the events leading to musicologists and fans digging up the facts of his whereabouts will feel like a revelation. For those who already know of Rodriguez’s musical reincarnation, there is still much to be appreciated about a film that examines a cruel reality — natural talent can only take you so far before the public decides your fate. If it had been left up to those who were advocating for him, it’s anyone’s guess how high Rodriguez could have soared.
During the opening scenes of “Sugar Man,” two of Rodriguez’s former music producers remember back to the first time they saw him perform on stage. Collectively, they say he was nothing more than “a shadow of a man … with his back to you … and this voice.” In many ways, “Sugar Man” doesn’t upend their vague description in the slightest. As the credits roll, he is still that same enigmatic character, despite Bendjelloul’s attempt to clear the air and really analyze the thoughts and emotions that formed Rodriguez’s past work.
Maybe, however, the music is supposed to speak for itself. Although Rodriguez is a man of few words, “Sugar Man” proves his admirers will not allow him to fade away again. For Rodriguez, unfulfilled dreams do not die. They simply evolve into inspiration for other wandering souls just like him.