Malik Bendjelloul’s Searching for Sugar Man is everything a documentary should be: poignant, passionate, and honest.  It’s a successful treasure hunt for a dead man that spans two continents, and provides an ending Rudy Ruettiger would be proud of.  It’s a story about the power of music, the power of living without regret, and the power of possibility.  And it’s all true.

The secret to the possible box-office success of the documentary is that it’s built like a popcorn movie: two middle-aged men decide to hunt down the most important rock star of their youths who disappeared before they even knew he was gone (just like their youths), never to resurface.  They’d love to tell him how much he means to them, only they live under oppressive governmental rule, Rodriguez’s album “Hard Fact” is almost 30 years old, and the popularity/obscurity of the man and his haunting album cover lead to rumors of a particularly gruesome suicide everyone naturally believed because there wasn’t any alternative information.  What they do know is that his music – whoever he is – is powerful and widespread in their native South Africa.  They know his music provoked change and helped spur the end of apartheid.

Now here comes the Hollywood ending: not only is he alive, he’s unaware of every detail in the above paragraph.  All he knows is he recorded a record 30 years ago no one ever heard or cared about.  He lives in Detroit.  He has no idea he burned himself alive (on stage!) or shot himself (on stage!).  When they find him and beg, he obliges, flies down to South Africa, and plays six sold-out shows with a backup band assembled on the fly using men so familiar with Rodriguez’s work they can already play every song without rehearsal.  Not only is he underwhelmed by his god-like status, he holds no resentment over the untold riches he’s been bilked out of by bootleggers and stereotypically villainous record executives.  The audience wants nothing more than to fire vitriol toward all who wronged this reluctant genius, but when he turns the other cheek so easily, we have no choice but do the same.  What remains is an immense appreciation for a man, his art, and his principles.

Here are just a few things said about Sixto Rodriguez over the course of this incredibly affecting film:

“Only Dylan was writing that well.”

“He played with his back to the audience.”

“The circumstances were right…why didn’t it happen?”

“(He was) more than a talent – (he was) a wise man and a profit.”

“ ‘Cause’ was the saddest song I ever heard.”

“He transferred pain into beauty like a silkworm.”

Cold Fact was in every home (along with) Abbey Road.”

“He’d be in my top five with Michael Jackson and Bill Withers.”

“Rodriguez was our god of banned music.”

“In South Africa (Rodriguez) is bigger than Elvis.”

Rodriguez’s story tests anyone who says music is their life: yeah, but do you love it as much as Craig Bartholemew and record shop owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, two fans who spend their waking lives hunting down the possibly deceased artist for no other reason than to put a face to the music that shaped his life, and possibly shake his hand?  Do you love music as much as Rodriguez, a hero to any recluse or singer/songwriter who sleeps at night telling themselves, “I’d be the same even if people were able to understand my genius”? Love it more than a man who doesn’t hold any resentment toward the record executives and bootleggers who most assuredly cost him millions?

Rodriguez’s own story is actually a short one.  He showed enough promise that a small label signed him.  He recorded enough songs for a whole album that no one cared about.  He returned to his native Detroit, worked blue-collar jobs, and raised a family. After Cold Fact came out to zero fanfare, Rodriguez was dropped by Sussex records two weeks before Christmas, and his career was over before it started.  The end.  None of this is mysterious.

The mystery is how a has-been/never-was became a superstar in South Africa.

The film offers one possible answer(s): an American girl brings a copy of Cold Fact with her on a trip to Johannesburg to visit her boyfriend.  They listen to it over and over (as people are apt to do on a vacation) and eventually start making copies for friends who make copies for their friends until, half a world away, a superstar is born.  In a particularly insightful memory, Willem Moller recalls, “Everyone had his record, but he was a mystery – we couldn’t read about him; we only had the cover photo,” and thus a modern day mythos was born, the type of buzz that focus groups and viral marketing experts could only dream of “organically” creating today.

Some background for those unfamiliar: during the height of apartheid, no foreign acts were allowed in South Africa, so even if Rodriguez was alive (unlikely) he wouldn’t have been able to perform anyway, so “finding” him became a moot point.  The news was censored, speaking out against the government carried a jail sentence of 3 years, and they didn’t think the world knew or cared.  Although no one is giving Rodriguez sole credit for changing the conversation (Nelson Mandela, anyone?), several people interviewed for the documentary almost went that far.  Moller continues, “(We realized) there’s a way out – write music.”  Moller in fact did exactly that, releasing his own record, including a single called “Set it Off,” which was so popular/controversial that it remains scratched in the censored music archive so it can’t be heard.

Searching for Sugar Man is a story and a lesson, a risk and a reward, a death and a rebirth, and as influential as the music may have been, it’s hard to imagine anything more impressive than the man himself.  The legend was a good one, but as you’ll see if you’re fortunate enough to catch a screening, “nothing beats reality.”