A search for sugar man may sound like something that’s been typed into Google, but Searching for Sugar Man tells a fascinating story that begins in that shadowy world before the world wide web even existed. It is made even more remarkable for taking place in a country that was once surrounded by an invisible wall, and because the man in question is as inscrutable as the scratchy old photographs of him back in the Sixties.

Mysterious Sugar Man hides behind shades

The country in question is South Africa and the wall that surrounded it was the impregnable barrier of government censorship and a trade boycott. The man at the heart of the film is Sixto Rodriguez. And you probably won’t have heard of him, unless you have some connection to the Rainbow Nation, or perhaps Australia.

Sixto Rodriguez, aka Rodriguez or Sugar Man, may be virtually unheard of in the UK, the USA and Europe, but he is a figure of adored and cultish status in South Africa. There, since the early 1970s, he has been regarded as a more authentic Bob Dylan, a more soulful Leonard Cohen and a more musical Bruce Springsteen, all rolled into one seriously cool, shades-wearing dude.

Music has long been a banner of youthful rebellion, but for young South Africans in the 70s and 80s Rodriguez stood for resistance. His music appeared to stand against the repressive racist Apartheid regime, rather than just embarrassing parents or even Mrs Thatcher. But while Rodriguez’s LPs sat at the top of most people’s stack of vinyl, no one knew anything about him. Swedish filmmaker, Malik Bendjelloul, makes a moving and engaging documentary from this curious situation.

Bendjelloul builds up a distinctly mysterious picture of the man who recorded just two albums in 1970 and 1971 respectively, and was rumoured to have killed himself in particularly gruesome fashion. He also gives us a vivid idea of what these albums meant to South Africans: Rodriguez’s singer-songwriterly honesty gained extra weight from the dispiriting situation in the country at the time. Finally, the end of Apartheid and the rise of the internet made it possible for two fans to track their hero down.

Uncovering the mystery of this “inner city poet” is intriguing, and it also helps that his music is good. He sings his own symbol-heavy, psychedelic-protest lyrics in a voice that is both direct and warm. It also helps that his record label actually spent some money producing his records. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra and members of the famous Motown house band, The Funk Brothers, ensured the music had a fuller sound than your average first album from an aspiring folky.

Just as the scariest monster movies work best when they hold off revealing their bogey man, Malik Bendjelloul keeps us guessing about the fate of Rodriguez. He draws this out to the last moment, even seeming to hold off showing us the name titles of his interview subjects until the last moment at this part of the film. The mystery gets solved, but Sugar Man remains an intriguing enigma.

The story of Rodriguez is very unusual, but also universal. Which of us, after all, does not have a light that is hidden under a bushel? Although most of us may never have got round to recording our own classic albums, here is the story of one man who did and unbeknownst to him received the recognition he deserved. The journey from dirty, run down Detroit to sunny South Africa is well and movingly told. It’s not surprising that it is already being mooted for next year’s Oscars.

Searching for Sugar Man is out on 26 July, 2012.

See the trailer here:

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