A version of this review appeared in The Age, October 4, 2012.
“Well you think you've got something going/Something you call unique...” The lyrics are by the Mexican-American singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, one of many pretenders who spent the early 1970s hoping to succeed Bob Dylan as the poet laureate of the freak nation. After two albums failed to chart, Rodriguez disappeared into obscurity – that is, in the United States. In Australia, he retained enough popularity to embark on a successful tour in 1981, and in South Africa, strangely enough, he became a icon for a generation of progressive middle-class whites.
With their lush psychedelic arrangements and woozy, wordy lyrics, Rodriguez's recordings now seem to epitomise the spirit of a bygone age. Back then, they must have sounded equally exotic to listeners displaced from the US counterculture in space rather than time. But plenty of wanna-bes in those days were singing about sex, drugs, a radical dream of freedom. What made Rodriguez special – and why did he succeed overseas and fail at home? The question is posed but not quite answered in this new documentary, a very polished first effort by the Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjellou, which concentrates on a small group of South African music lovers and their efforts to track down their elusive hero.
Like Stone Reader (2002) or this year's Curse of The Gothic Symphony, Searching For Sugar Man belongs to a modern genre of documentary that makes fans into the real heroes while chronicling a quest to see a neglected talent restored to a place of honour. In the process, Bendjellou shows how any cultural phenomenon is created by audiences as well as artists: Rodriguez himself could never have imagined the uses his music would be put to, and the film doesn't entirely depend on winning newcomers over to his cause.
Rather, the fascination of the story lies in the notion of a secret link between two differently troubled universes: the already decaying Detroit where the young Rodriguez laboured as a construction worker, and a South Africa so repressed that a lyric like “I wonder how many times you've had sex” could sound like a call to revolution. Ultimately, the film evokes a certain nostalgia – not nostalgia for the hippie era or for the bad old days of apartheid, but for a pre-Internet age when it was possible for forgotten art to spring back to life in an unexpected setting, hiding its origins and letting locals fill in the gaps.