Detroit, 1968. Mist rises from the river as freighters pass by. Two men walk into a bar called the Sewer. An eerie voice floats toward them, like the smoke that fills the dingy, beer-stained room. They draw closer to its source. The singer's back is turned. He could be anybody - or nobody at all.
"It's almost like you're walking out of a Sherlock Holmes novel," says Dennis Coffey, one of the onlookers. At the time, he and his buddy produced records for folks like Wilson Pickett and the Supremes.
They help this artist, a Mexican-American troubadour named Rodriguez, cut an album called Cold Fact. Filled with poetic protest lyrics, tales of urban decay and hints of the Latin folk tradition, it's something Bob Dylan must have dreamed of creating. It earns praise from critics but bombs at stores. When Rodriguez's label drops him, he vanishes into the mist. This is a mystery, after all.
In the documentary Searching for Sugar Man, director Malik Bendjelloul constructs this story beautifully, using interviews, archival photos and videos, and haunting songs by Rodriguez himself. Animated drawings of Detroit serve as transitions. They look like they've been sketched with dirt. It's fitting: Rodriguez is a man of the streets. He knows prostitutes and coke dealers. A construction worker, he comes home covered in dust.
Across the globe, in South Africa, bootlegged copies of Cold Fact start to multiply. Rodriguez is as popular as the Beatles, according to one record-shop owner. His music speaks to Afrikaners seeking to protest apartheid without getting arrested, but they know little else about him. When new records stop appearing, people hear he's committed suicide onstage. This rumor makes him legendary.
Start the tale in South Africa, as Bendjelloul does, and it's twice as magical. Here, people describe Rodriguez as a tortured soul with a dark secret. The details of his death are so shocking that you'll want to believe them, just so Bendjelloul can unveil their cause. You'll assume that Rodriguez never knew of his adoring fans, and that fame could have prevented his demise. Whether you should believe any of this is another matter.
Allusions to Christ encourage leaps of faith. Rodriguez champions the poor. His pen name is Jesus. When a journalist discovers Rodriguez is alive, he likens it to a resurrection. (Don't worry: This isn't the film's biggest revelation.)
But Bendjelloul commits sins of omission. Rodriguez didn't completely vanish from the public eye, and race likely affected his success in South Africa - and lack thereof in America. As former Motown Records exec Clarence Avant notes, "Everybody knew Rodriguez was a Latin name, and Latin music was not happening then." Rather than exploring this insight, Bendjelloul frames it as an afterthought.
That said, Sugar Man brims with ethereal moments. You'll fall in love with Rodriguez, and you'll want to buy his music. But if you're a skeptical type, you might not buy the story Bendjelloul's selling.