Whatever happened to Sixto Rodriguez (who?), the never-known late-’60s folk balladeer at the heart of this myth-revising investigation? Short answer: He had some tough competition. Listen to his cynical acoustic-rock songs, well showcased in the movie, and you’ll hear a captivating sense of countercultural honesty, the lyrics touching on sex, drugs and living out of step. But he’s no Bob Dylan or Marvin Gaye. Searching for Sugar Man exploits the fringe legend that’s sprung up around a label-dropped casualty (as well as our own naïveté as viewers who want to discover a lost genius) to produce a diverting but frustrating quasiprofile, one that doesn’t have the answers to its own questions.
Where did dark tales of the singer’s demise, onstage in a suicidal firebomb of gasoline, come from? Anyhow, it didn’t happen (even though Searching leads off with the anecdote); we see our subject floating like a ghost down a wintry Michigan street decades later. How could Rodriguez himself not know about the thousands of albums he sold in apartheid-ridden South Africa, where he became an underground hero? (Never will you wish more for a pit-bull lawyer to show up and run down some of the filmmaker’s accounting leads.) And what about now? Rodriguez seems content to have drifted away, into menial jobs and civic duty; he even ran for public office. So why is this songwriter, so articulate on vinyl, so vague and spacey in current-day interviews? Something happened here, deeper than an aborted quest for fame, and the documentary hasn’t gotten to it.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf