There are several entrancing mysteries circulating in "Searching for Sugar Man," (opening Friday at the Tower) a hugely appealing documentary about fans, faith and an enigmatic Age of Aquarius musician who burned bright and hopeful before disappearing.
One mystery involves its title subject, a Detroit singer-songwriter known as Rodriguez who, after being discovered in a dive bar, cut a well-regarded record in 1969. The album, "Cold Fact," earned good reviews and four Billboard stars, but it bombed in the United States, and Sixto Rodriguez faded from view.
Where he went and why are just a few of the questions a Swedish filmmaker, Malik Bendjelloul, sought in answering the riddle of Rodriguez.
Bendjelloul, fittingly, begins his worldwide search onscreen in South Africa and with an irrepressible music fan named Stephen Segerman, nicknamed Sugar, after the Rodriguez song "Sugar Man." It was Segerman who introduced Bendjelloul to the implausible story of how Rodriguez, after copies of "Cold Fact" hit South Africa in the early '70s, became an anti-establishment inspiration there and something of a political cause. Rodriguez, with his soft guitar strumming and lyrics that hit hard, blunt notes ("I've tasted hate street's hanging tree), became a star.
His curtain of dark hair, ubiquitous sunglasses and inscrutable smile, as well as the fact that no one in South Africa knew much about him, only burnished his appeal.
Rodriguez's popularity in South Africa became Bendjelloul's smart starting point in the documentary and the way he transformed a good story into an electric one. It's a tale that had begun to surface years before Bendjelloul started shooting his documentary, partly because of efforts by Rodriguez admirers such as< Segerman.
In his notes for a 1996 South African CD of Rodriguez's album, "Coming From Reality," Segerman asked if there were any "musicologist-detectives out there" who could help answer what had become of the musician.
A journalist, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, read that line and, picking up the challenge like a gauntlet, was soon sifting the facts from decades of speculation, including the rumor that Rodriguez had died onstage after setting himself on fire.
The search for Rodriguez intensified with the introduction of a nifty little tool called the Internet and a website that Segerman and Alec McCrindle created in 1997, baptized the Great Rodriguez Hunt. What they eventually discovered is often delightful and at times so poignant that many of the most crucial details are best left for viewers to discover for themselves.
It's almost impossible to see a movie these days without knowing too many of its surprises, and "Searching for Sugar Man" is one of those that's best seen with as little knowledge of its subject as possible.
Bendjelloul knows that, too. That's why, after he introduces Segerman, Bendjelloul returns to the past to spin the story chronologically, beginning with Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, who produced "Cold Fact."
Using a well-balanced mix of interviews, archival images and dreamy animated sequences, Bendjelloul builds a narrative that simultaneously moves in two seemingly opposite if complementary directions. Interview by interview, location by location, he tries to go into the mystery of a single man even as he heads out into a world that initially rejected Rodriguez then embraced him.
Each interview adds another piece to the puzzle. Coffey and Theodore describe what it was like the first time they saw Rodriguez, who was playing with his back to the audience; Segerman and others explain what the music meant if you were a young, white South African and grasping for hope in the somber, at times despairing songs of a Detroit musician.
Bendjelloul doesn't dig deeply into why Rodriguez, a dark-skinned Mexican American, who sounds like (for starters) Bob Dylan, James Taylor and Nick Drake, was embraced so passionately by white South Africans under apartheid. Rather, he accepts the declarations of love and fan explanations that it was the right music for a country in lockdown.
That scarcely seems like the whole story, especially for such a complex country, and while occasionally the movie teeters close to embracing bromides about the universal healing power of pop culture, there's too much sincerity in "Searching for Sugar Man," too much love and enduring human mystery for cynicism to take hold.
In the end, Bendjelloul went looking for a man and found something much greater.