“Soon you know I’ll leave you, and I’ll never look behind, ’cause I was born for the purpose, that crucifies your mind.” These are the haunting words of poet and musician Sixto Rodriguez. His legacy is largely unknown. His lyrics have faded into anonymity. But if you’re from South Africa, you’re probably familiar with these lines — they provided an anthem to repeal Apartheid in the early 1990s.

Searching for Sugar Man

At the Michigan
Sony Picture Classics

If this sounds incredible to you, chances are it’s nothing compared to the shockwave that hit Rodriguez himself when he realized that his music was as significant as Bob Dylan for an entire generation of South Africans. This was a man who, after recording only two albums with Detroit-based label Motown, allegedly set himself on fire mid-concert — a cruel testament to the broken promises of record producers and the abandonment of his fans.

“Searching for Sugar Man,” a documentary by first time director Malik Bendjelloul, is more than just an underdog story. It’s a story of a man who was lost, became a legend, and then, once found, proved more puzzling than one could have ever imagined. Such is the scope of Bendjelloul’s film as he chronicles the journey of two men to track down any information that could lead to the truth about their music idol, Rodriguez.

From the outset, the film is shrouded in mystery, as record store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and journalist Brian Currin explain what feels like a hopeless goose chase to find Rodriguez. And given that he’s been presumed dead for years, any chance of them making progress seems farfetched, to say the least.

Slowly, methodically, layers are peeled back until the movie’s gut-wrenching core is revealed. A woman identifying herself as Rodriguez’s daughter posts on Segerman’s website, The Great Rodriguez Hunt: he is alive. He lives a common life in Detroit, with no knowledge of his legendary status across the ocean, and has never seen a dime in royalties.

What proceeds from here is not a profile of a broken man, or a man bitter at the world for taking what was rightfully his. Rather, this is a man who chooses a life of simple elegance — finding joy and meaning working construction. In his first interview, Rodriguez shifts uneasily in his seat, signature dark sunglasses perched on his face, laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing.

So, he’s learned he’s an icon in another continent. So, he travels to South Africa to perform for 20,000 screaming fans. “So what?” he seems to think. He’s already found happiness in his life. Why does he need another one?

Yet Rodriguez, as always, is full of surprises. He greets his fans like the star he never was and owns the stage, delivering the music that’s been circulating for years as bootleg records and was even banned from the radio waves by a government intent on shielding its citizens from its so-called anarchist themes.

To watch Rodriguez interact with audience members is to observe a long-lost brother finally coming home to his family. In the end, however, he returns to Detroit, donating all funds from his numerous South Africa appearances to friends and family. Is it an unusual use of money for a struggling workingman? Yes. But so is this entire heartbreaking story.

Watching him walk through the Detroit snow, black coat pulled tight around himself, guitar strapped to his back, you wonder what happened to his music. You wonder what went wrong, what deprived listeners of his songs’ profound mixture of majesty and realism. But most of all, you’re humbly reminded of the strength of the human spirit.

He didn’t capitalize on his “sad songs,” as one record producer calls them in the film. He lived them, each and every lyric, mined from the depths of his heart, an understanding of the plight of America’s working class so acute it simply had to be true.

At one point, one of Rodriguez’s three daughters answers what she thinks people back home will say of her father’s unbelievable Cinderella story. She explains that Detroiters need these kinds of stories. As do most of us.

That’s exactly what “Sugarman” gives us: The chance to believe, if only for a short while, that desperate times can be overcome. And, more importantly, that there is still beauty to be found in even the most dire situations.

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