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Searching for Sugar Man

HERB BOYD Special to the AmNews | 8/10/2012, 10:28 a.m.

Malik Bendjelloul, director of the documentary "Searching for Sugar Man," has put me in touch with a musician I hadn't seen in more than 40 years. While I wasn't looking for Sixto Rodriguez, the subject of this engaging film, Bendjelloul was, and now the world is discovering Sugar Man and the relentless search for him.

In the late '60s and early '70s, Rodriguez--he went by just his last name back then--used to come by my office at Monteith College at Wayne State University in Detroit and we would speak of many things, fools and kings. Much like the lyrics from "Nature Boy," Rodriguez always exuded a gypsy-like mystique. With his dark, flowing hair, dressed in black with fingers and wrists festooned with turquoise jewelry, he looked like a combination of Jose Feliciano and Ritchie Valens, particularly as portrayed by Lou Diamond Phillips in the biopic "La Bamba."

But his music was more like Bob Dylan laced with Motown; he sang in a melodious voice while strumming and sometimes picking his acoustic guitar. Since I kept a guitar in my office, there were a couple of times when we played together, but most of our time was spent talking politics and me suggesting he take a few classes at the university. I was happy to learn he did go back to Montieth and get his degree in philosophy in 1981.

At that time, Rodriguez was more interested in politics; one day he came by with campaign literature. Bendjelloul's film brought back those moments and sharpened my memory of those days.

I never ventured down to the riverfront to hear him play, though I do recall hearing him once at Cobb's Corner on Cass Avenue, not too far from campus. By then he had recorded two albums, with "Cold Fact" being the most impressive. But as suddenly as he appeared on campus and in my life, he was gone.

Given his vagabond tendencies, I thought he was somewhere out West, or maybe he had gone to Mexico in search of his roots.

I was stunned to see his image in promotional materials for this film and I couldn't wait until it opened.

Bendjelloul does a fantastic job unraveling the mystery of Rodriguez's life--I was happy to learn that his rumored suicide, which was played up in the trailer, was not true. I was even more astonished to discover that he had become a cultural icon in South Africa, his music of vital importance to the struggle against apartheid.

Even before seeing the film, I purchased the soundtrack, and it is smoothly integrated with the 85 minutes of the film, which is comprised mainly of talking heads with enticing snippets of animation. The lack of financing put a limit on the animation they could use, but what little there is does a good job illuminating the narrative.

The film could have used more footage of Rodriguez in concert after he was tracked down in Detroit, where he had been all along working as a common laborer and raising his family.

Toward the end of the film, we see Rodriguez, now in his 70s, silhouetted against a window in his ordinary home, silently plucking the guitar, his thoughts as far away as the sound of the South African fans who turned out to hear and see the man who had meant so much to them in past times.

I'm not sure where Rodriguez lives in Detroit, but the next time I'm there, I'll do my own search for him, hoping he may remember some of the times we spent together before he vanished into distant popularity.