Film Review: The Cold Facts About a Forgotten Folk-Rocker

American singer-songwriter Rodriguez unwittingly became an icon of the South African anti-apartheid movement. (Sony Pictures Classic)

Sony Pictures Classic

American singer-songwriter Rodriguez unwittingly became an icon of the South African anti-apartheid movement. (Sony Pictures Classic)

'Searching for Sugar Man'

Rated PG-13 for brief profanity and some drug references.

The irresistible "Searching for Sugar Man" documents a real-life rescue story that may be as strange and unlikely as the one in "Argo."

Directed by Malik Bendjelloul, the film follows two dedicated music lovers from South Africa on their mission to discover the fate of the Detroit-born, Mexican-American folk-rock singer-songwriter Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, who, billed simply as "Rodriguez," recorded two critically respected but consumer-ignored albums in the early 1970s, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality.

After the failure of the albums, Rodriguez returned to anonymity in the U.S., but the records established him as a superstar in South Africa, where he is "bigger than the Rolling Stones," according to one fan; "He's like a wise man, a prophet," declares another. Street-wise and anti-authoritarian, Rodriguez's compositions — sample titles include "Crucify Your Mind," "Rich Folks Hoax" and "This Is Not a Song, It's an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues" — were embraced as anthems of the anti-apartheid movement.

Cold Fact, we are told, became as ubiquitous in the record collections of middle-class white South Africans as Abbey Road and Bridge Over Troubled Water. (A deficiency of the film is that it doesn't tell us if black South Africans care about Rodriguez.) The singer's obscurity only enhanced his legend: In a reflection, perhaps, of the country's public racial violence, rumors that Rodriguez shot himself or set himself on fire on stage were commonly accepted.

With a mixture of vintage material, new footage and some recreations, the movie does a nice job of presenting the mystery and history of Rodriguez, before, inevitably, he is rediscovered and rescued, so to speak, from inconspicuousness. Receiving no royalties from his overseas sales, Rodriguez — variously described as "a wandering spirit" and "not much more than a homeless person" — is as surprised as anyone by his superstar status outside of America.

For all its detail, "Searching for Sugar Man," a Swedish/British production, seems incomplete, and biased in favor of its predetermined narrative. (The film doesn't mention that Rodriguez toured and recorded in Australia in 1979.) Even so, music lovers won't want to miss it, and after the movie they may be inspired to purchase the two albums, which have been reissued by the Light in the Attic label.

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