THE "SUGAR MAN" in Searching for Sugar Man is the Detroit singer/songwriter who went under the name Rodriguez. He released two obscure albums of introspective, Dylanesque agitprop-lite in 1970 and 1971, then promptly vanished off the face of the earth. Documentary filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul picks up the thread in South Africa, where Rodriguez's music has amassed a huge following over the decades—and where nobody knows a thing about the mysterious man behind the records. Rumors circulate that Rodriguez, disillusioned by the lack of response to his music, committed suicide by setting himself on fire during a show in the early '70s. His songs become a voice of dissent during South Africa's ugly apartheid years; Rodriguez himself becomes a cult figure and a folk hero, selling hundreds of thousands of albums in the process.
If this is the first you've heard of Rodriguez, you might choose to stop reading here, because the twist that Searching for Sugar Man reveals—while not a surprise to anyone who's picked up the recent reissues of his albums on the Seattle-based Light in the Attic label—is handled brilliantly in the film. Even if you do know what happened next, Sugar Man is still one of the most intriguing and satisfying music documentaries in a good while.
SO, SPOILERS: Turns out Rodriguez is alive and well, living close to poverty as a contractor in Detroit, completely unaware of his massive audience halfway around the globe. (The interview with Clarence Avant, the head of Rodriguez's label and supposedly the administrator of his royalties, is fascinating and damning.) Expect Searching for Sugar Man to do for Rodriguez what Anvil: The Story of Anvil did for that Canadian metal band—except that more of the fans Rodriguez acquires through this excellent film are bound to stick.