Searching for Sugar Man: A Forgotten Musician Receives His Due

Fluid, open-ended documentaries that demand more of an audience than foregone assent or fleeting bouts of passive outrage are rare these days, which is what makes Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man such a gift. In telling the tale of Sixto Rodriguez, a Mexican-American balladeer from Detroit who cut a couple of tepidly received LPs in the late ’60s, vanished amid hazy rumors of onstage suicide, and subsequently became an Elvis-sized rock god in South Africa, the Swedish filmmaker sidesteps arthritic VH1-style “where are they now” antics in favor of a more equivocal interrogation of celebrity culture. Bendjelloul interviews pertinent Rodriguez-saga parties in standard rock-doc style, including the hilariously combative former Motown bigwig and Sussex Records (Rodriguez’s label) founder Clarence Avant, as well as the singer-songwriter’s charming, touchingly loyal grown daughters. It’s no huge surprise when Rodriguez himself turns up, still living the same modest existence as before his brush with micro-fame, but it does dispel the impression that Bendjelloul has been punking us. Better still, Rodriguez’s casual disinterest in p.r.-blitzing his resurrection and apparent contentment with an ordinary working life lets Searching for Sugar Man hold up a mirror to what we’ve come to expect—and cynically refuse to accept—from artists in an age of pervasive, entitled notoriety.