'Sugar Man' explores the life, unlikely stardom of a 'Chicano Bob Dylan'

Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez became an icon for young Afrikaners opposing apartheid in the '70s. "Searching for Sugar Man" details his life story.

Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez became an icon for young Afrikaners opposing apartheid in the '70s. "Searching for Sugar Man" details his life story.

SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN tells the true story of the greatest '70s US rock icon who never was, how he was rediscovered in a far ...

Rating: PG-13 foir brief strong language and some drug references

Length: 85 minutes

Released: July 27, 2012 NY/LA

Cast: Stephen Segerman, Dennis Coffey, Mike Theodore, Dan DiMaggio, Jerome Ferretti

Director: Malik Bendjelloul

Writer: Malik Bendjelloul

More info and showtimes »

You never know where social resistance will find its prophets and poets. For young liberal Afrikaners opposing apartheid in the '70s, it was an unknown Detroit singer-songwriter named Rodriguez, the mysterious figure at the center of the excellent new documentary "Searching for Sugar Man."

As the story goes, a bootleg copy of the singer's first album, 1970's "Cold Fact," made its way into South Africa. The powerful lyrics of repression and urban decay quickly caught on among the country's disaffected youth. Rumors that a despondent Rodriguez had committed suicide onstage at the end of a performance, and the government ban on his music, only heightened his appeal. The album went platinum in South Africa and his legend grew. They say he was more popular than Elvis.

Years would pass until the persistence of an obsessive fan and the resourceful digging by music writer Craig Bartholomew-Strydom would lead back to Detroit, where Rodriguez's story began. By now, the details of the story have long been public, yet you feel as if you are there as filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul sleuths out each clue to Rodriguez's fate, resurrecting both the man and the music in the process.

Bendjelloul begins in present-day South Africa with Stephen "Sugar" Segerman, that obsessive fan. His nickname, and the documentary's title, are both drawn from one of Rodriguez's classic cuts, a haunting ode to a corner cocaine dealer called "Sugar Man."

While fans half a world away were connecting with the work of the man his producers called a Chicano Bob Dylan, Rodriguez remained unknown in the U.S., dropped from his record contract after his albums flopped and returned to a blue-collar life. For decades, he had no idea that on the other side of the globe, he was a superstar.

It was a juicy story that Bendjelloul, whose documentary TV work has long focused on rock music, was keen to tell. Still, the filmmaker had an interesting challenge in chronicling the life and unlikely stardom of Rodriguez.

Though the facts alone were compelling, there was almost no performance footage to work with, a central ingredient in most rock documentaries. The music, however, serves as a stand-in for the artist. It is how we get to know him.

Bendjelloul fleshes things out by interviewing the producers who first discovered him, convinced they had a sure thing. News footage of bloody Cape Town clashes between police and protesters in the '70s stands in stark contrast to shots of a decaying Detroit, factories closed, buildings boarded.

It is a slow tease of a film, as Bendjelloul wends his way through the many myths and pieces together the reality. But finally there is Rodriguez. A modest man of modest means, he quietly reflects on the success he now enjoys a continent away from his Detroit home and the hard times in between.

As it happens, the Rodriguez that Bendjelloul found is almost as elusive as the Rodriguez who was lost. Interviews with the artist and his family fill in many of the details of those missing years — the construction work he took on to pay the bills, the family he raised, the political activism he continued. But what shapes and drives his artistry remains just out of reach.

In "Searching for Sugar Man," Bendjelloul has given us an indelible portrait of an artist given a second chance at fame.

© 2012 Knoxville.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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