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Culture Documentary

Searching for Sugar Man

(Sony Pictures Classics)


Searching for Sugar Man

Indie film sneaks into No. 7 spot at the American box office

Despite opening in only 28 cities the first weekend of August, Searching for Sugar Man, an indie film by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, quietly sneaked into the No. 7 spot at the American box office. And for good reason: Bendjelloul rightly describes the film as "like a fairytale, almost, like Cinderella or something."

Imagine a singer-songwriter comparable to early Bob Dylan-piercing lyrics and anti-establishment politics-with one difference: This artist never made good. Now imagine that halfway around the world, say in South Africa, a few kids heard his music and liked it. A lot. And from a few bootleg copies, the artist became a sensation bigger than Elvis or the Rolling Stones in their country, all without the artist knowing about it.

Despite how incredible that sounds, it's exactly what happened to Sixto Diaz Rodriguez. During the 1960s and '70s, South Africans were isolated by apartheid, and though Rodriguez's songs became the anthems of anti-apartheid revolution, his music was officially censored by the government. Once apartheid was over, Rodriguez's record label had gone under and rumors swirled that he had burned himself to death or shot himself in a final act of social conscience.

What was the real story behind his death? That question drives the documentary, as we retrace the detective work of fan Stephen "Sugar" Segerman from Cape Town to the studios of record execs in Detroit. The answer he finds is so wonderful that, in the director's words, it's "like learning that Elvis is alive."

The film stutter-steps at times, but the story is well-crafted and compelling. It is rated PG-13 for brief language and drug references, and conservative viewers won't appreciate Rodriguez's politics. However, Rodriguez is far deeper and more gentle than most rockers. And for Christians who feel unimportant by society's standards, the story of a man who lives without earthly fanfare, but who is more cherished than he could imagine may itself be a treasure worth searching out.