'Searching for Sugar Man' review: Pop-culture thriller

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"Searching for Sugar Man," directed by Malik Bendjelloul, is about a charismatic Mexican-American singer-songwriter named Rodriguez, who had attracted a local following with his mysterious presence, soulful melodies and prophetic lyrics, in the style of a Chicano Bob Dylan. Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

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The single-named, early-'70s rocker known as Rodriguez was a pop god in apartheid-era South Africa. It's too bad he killed himself onstage, despondent over a promising career that never quite took off. Or did he? "Searching for Sugar Man," Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul's intriguing, exhaustive and ultimately upbeat pop-culture thriller goes places its viewer never expects -- and knowing much more than that will spoil the fun of a film that relies on unexpected developments as much as it does the music, mood and exhilarating obsession of the search at its center.

The Detroit singer-songwriter Rodriguez released a well-regarded album called "Cold Fact" on the A&M label in 1969. Although his recording was favorably reviewed, it failed to catch on -- at least in the United States. In South Africa, however, copies made their way into underground consumption even while the oppressive regime there was banning any provocative content from airwaves. Rodriguez's brand of downbeat, urbanized pop developed a more-than-cult following; half a million copies of his albums eventually were sold in a nation where such a number made him huge.

Maybe it was Rodriguez's amorphous ethnicity, his mysterious persona or his hard-luck style, but he became a legend, one burnished by the tale of his death by drugs, or suicide, or even burning himself alive onstage. None of it really happened. But what did was pretty dramatic, too.

In other ways, Rodriguez was a typical music industry casualty. His royalties were paid by the South African labels to the U.S. label and not to him. Money disappeared. And so did Rodriguez, at least until a couple of obsessive fans, and director Bendjelloul, picked up the trail and followed it to this first-rate film.

PLOT The search for a long-lost pop icon has an unexpected payoff.

LENGTH 1:25

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PLAYING AT Malverne Cinema 4

BOTTOM LINE Genuine sentiment, honesty and enthusiasm fuel an irresistible nonfiction feature.

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