Searching For Sugar Man review

Not an Apprentice spin-off.

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In the early ’70s, after two failed albums of politicised folk, Detroit singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez shot himself onstage. Or did he set himself on fire?

These were the rumours that accompanied the bootlegging of his 1970 album Cold Fact in South Africa, where his records caught the imagination of middle-class liberals.

In America nobody cared enough to spread them. But as SA recordshop owner Steve “Sugar” Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew found – and recount in Malik Bendjelloul’s astonishing documentary – the truth was even stranger.

It’s easy to see why Rodriguez’s music struck a nerve in Apartheid-era SA . Dylanesque in their gentle protesting, though more melodic, his songs “gave people permission to free their minds”, as one journo puts it, even as contentious tracks were scratched off the vinyl by censors.

It’s harder to see why he didn’t catch on in his homeland. Songs such as the haunted ‘Sugar Man’ (championed by composer David Holmes) are lost classics, blessing Bendjelloul’s four-star doc with a five-star soundtrack.

However fascinating the twists and turns – and we’re not telling – Rodriguez’s frustrated path presents a problem for the filmmaker.

There’s little footage of the man himself, an issue sidestepped with talking heads and animations of Rodriguez drifting through downtown Detroit like the ghost of troubadours past.

Producer Steve Rowland notes how, on the heart-breaking ‘Cause’, the singer talks of losing his job “two weeks before Christmas”; the next year, the record company made his lyrics a reality.

Without much raw material, Bendjelloul can’t match the entertainment value of Anvil or Dig! , but what he’s unearthed is far more enduring: the all-too-credible story of a superstar that never was.

Freelance Writer

Matt Glasby is a freelance film and TV journalist. You can find his work on Total Film - in print and online - as well as at publications like the Radio Times, Channel 4, DVD REview, Flicks, GQ, Hotdog, Little White Lies, and SFX, among others. He is also the author of several novels, including The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film and Britpop Cinema: From Trainspotting To This Is England.