The Oscar-nominated documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” tells the strange story of singer-songwriter Rodriguez. Back in the early 1970s, the record company had high hopes for him. With eminently hummable tunes and lyrics that eloquently spoke to life on the mean streets of Detroit, Rodriguez seemed poised to be the next Bob Dylan. But his two albums, “Cold Facts” and “Coming from Reality,” never really caught on in the United States. That would seem to be the end of the story, except, for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, Rodriguez’s album did, unbeknownst to him, phenomenally well in South Africa. His songs proved to be the anthems of a generation of young South Africans who were increasingly frustrated by their government’s apartheid policies. While his albums were selling as well as “Abbey Road” in Cape Town, Rodriguez seemingly disappeared into obscurity.
“Searching for Sugar Man” also follows some hardcore South African fans, such as Steve “Sugar” Segerman, who grew fascinated by the mysterious origins of his favorite albums. Over many years, he eventually managed to track down the musician, who was living like a Zen monk in a rundown section of the Motor City.
I talked with the movie’s director, Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, a couple of weeks ago, just before the Oscar nominations were announced. He talked about discovering the strange story of Rodriguez and his own difficulties with getting the movie made, which included having to shoot part of the film on his iPhone. “Searching for Sugar Man” comes out this week on DVD.