sugar_crop.jpg
Hal Wilson/Sony Pictures Classics
Rodriguez in a publicity photo, circa 1971.
In one of this year's best documentaries to date, and almost certainly the best

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Searching for Sugar Man Opens Today at the Harvard Exit

sugar_crop.jpg
Hal Wilson/Sony Pictures Classics
Rodriguez in a publicity photo, circa 1971.
In one of this year's best documentaries to date, and almost certainly the best music doc of 2012, a Detroit folk-rock footnote of the early '70s discovers that he's "bigger than Elvis" in South Africa. Have you ever heard of the one-named musician Rodriguez? Me neither. He only released two albums, both did terribly, and he essentially disappeared for the next 25 years. Possibly you've heard the reissues of his Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, both courtesy of local label Light in the Attic. Or possibly you read news accounts in the mid-'90s of his unlikely return to the public eye. Now his story is told in full in a marvelously poignant new documentary opening today at the Harvard Exit...

Listening to Rodriguez's music today, there's a mellow retro-freshness that recalls Dylan, Van Morrison, Donovan, Jose Feliciano, and Leonard Cohen. It's protest music and poetry set to comfortable studio grooves, few songs lasting longer than the span of a 45. Rodriguez was a product, a failed product, of the singer-songwriter combine, when labels--his was A&M--swooped down on obscure troubadours in the hopes of Dylan-level sales. Why did Americans fail to respond to Rodriguez? That's not really the issue for Searching for Sugar Man, directed by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul. We can surmise his Hispanic surname, poor publicity, or perhaps the lack of pay-for-play promotion on the airwaves. Regardless, he was forgotten after his second 1971 album, as his disappointed producers explain in Searching for Sugar Man.

The movie really begins in South Africa, of all places, and its central mystery is this: How did an American singer-songwriter become a revolutionary icon for liberal white Afrikaners? The answer, as we gradually learn during the 85-minute film, whose central big reveal we won't reveal here, is obscurity. It's hard to remember now, with iTunes and Google, that buying a record on vinyl could once be a complete act of faith. Four decades ago, without a review in Rolling Stone, without hearing a single on the radio, an LP might represent the occult knowledge of an older brother or record-store clerk. "Listen to this," he might say confidentially, like it was some illicit substance. And then you might listen to it over and over again, knowing nothing more about the artist than the jacket photo and track listings. Everything else was left to the imagination.

That's the way a Cape Town jeweler, Stephen "Sugar" Segerman encountered Rodriguez. Now a middle-aged record store owner, he touchingly recalls the volcanic effect Cold Fact had on him and his generation. South Africa had little media contact with the outside world in the '70s. TV and the radio and newspapers were strictly censored. The apartheid regime, starting to buckle by the '80s, created a closed monoculture of music. No rock stars came to perform, there was no Top of the Pops to watch on TV, there were no news reports to provide context for the music.

And what a wonderful thing. Imagine now trying to listen to new music without benefit of iTunes or Amazon ranking, without your friends' opinions on Facebook, without critics or hearing what's playing through other car windows. Segerman and other Baby Boomers in South Africa didn't know better; they simply loved Rodriguez so much that, one listener recalls, he was ranked with The Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel. Every white liberal South African album had his two albums. And though they couldn't understand the context (racially and economically divided Detroit), nor glean anything about the artist's biography, his complaints resonated: The world is unfair. The old order has to change. The best response to cruelty is song and solidarity. Love will prevail against anger.

Today those sentiments might register as hippie talk, but South Africa--or at least one sector of it--was a responsive place for Rodriguez's morose yet hopeful lyrics. Then came Nelson Mandela. Then came the Internet, which allowed Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom to separate Rodriguez from his martyr myth. In one of those crazy urban legends, South African fans believed Rodriguez had committed suicide on stage as an artistic gesture. Death explained his obscurity, the lack of liner notes, the absence of any further albums. He was like Christ nailed to the cross of Apartheid.

You can Google the rest. But my recommendation is to remain in the dark just a bit longer. Download the music. See the movie. Then go back to Google. Then check the Showbox concert calendar for October 12. Then you'll see where the search ends.

 
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