When people picture their fantasy career, no one imagines being an accountant or a human resources manager or a building inspection engineer. They imagine, more often than not, the glamorous life of a rock star. But for every would-be musician who makes the charts, there are a hundred—a thousand, more likely—dreamers who will never have a gold record. Sure, one person wins “American Idol” every season. But how many of those wannabes in line never even make it on camera? Perhaps it’s not the stories of superstardom that are the true music industry legend but the tales of working-class, broken-down, open mic night never-weres that more honestly represent this thing we call popular music.
You could find no more appropriate patron saint for this ideal than the long-lost folk rocker profiled in Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul’s stirring, truth-is-stranger-than fiction documentary Searching for Sugar Man. The basic story is this: Back in the late ’60s, a Detroit-area singer-songwriter named Rodriguez cut a couple of albums for a major label. Sadly, the Bob Dylan-style performer with the José Feliciano-esque voice couldn’t catch a break. Both of his albums bombed. No hit single emerged. In the blink of an eye, he was dumped by his label, never to be heard from again. It’s not an uncommon story by any means. Head to any thrift store record bin and you’ll find plenty more like it. This tale, however, has a twist.
Searching for Sugar Man introduces us to a South African record store owner nicknamed “Sugar” (after the Rodriguez track “Sugar Man”). Sugar has teamed up with a South African journalist to hunt down information about the mysterious musician known as Rodriguez. Why? Well, thanks to a bizarre turn of fate, some unknown music fan snuck a Rodriguez record into South Africa in the early ’70s. That record was bootlegged countless times, and the failed Motown musician became a pop legend halfway around the world. This is no idle exaggeration either. Everyone in South Africa knows Rodriguez. He’s outsold the Rolling Stones. He’s more popular than Elvis. “His music was the soundtrack of our lives,” says Sugar (née Stephen Segerman). “The three records everybody owned were: Bridge Over Troubled Water, Abbey Road and Cold Fact [Rodriguez’ first album].”
Despite his being a household name, no one in South Africa actually knows anything concrete about the man called Rodriguez. The most common urban myth is that he committed suicide on stage back in 1972. Keep in mind that—thanks to apartheid—South Africa was a culturally isolated nation until the early ’90s. An embargo by the worldwide entertainment industry (“I ain’t gonna play Sun City” being a rock star rallying cry) kept Johannesburg and surrounding areas awash in homegrown African talent and illegally bootlegged foreign albums for decades.
As it turns out, Rodriguez didn’t commit suicide on stage. What happened to him is far more prosaic. I won’t spoil too much of the film’s fairy tale narrative by laying it all out, but you can rest assured that Mr. Rodriguez is alive and well, and in for a major shock once the filmmakers show up on his doorstep.
Searching for Sugar Man is pure, heart-swelling wish fulfillment. To pull a reference from far outside the music biz, it’s like a real-life Harry Potter story. One day, some people show up on your grubby, working-class doorstep and tell you, “Guess what, you’re actually a very special person with magical powers. If you just fly away with us to a faraway land, you’ll be worshipped as a hero.” Who can resist a narrative like that?
Part detective novel, part Cinderella story, Searching for Sugar Man is an entrancing piece of rock and roll history. It’s also proof positive that the members of seminal ’80s rock band Journey knew what they were talking about when they told us all, “Don’t stop believin’.” Hell, for all you know, you could already be a superstar in Lithuania.