Searching for Sugraman: Oscar Nominee

Simple, straightforward and emotionally effective, “Searching for Sugarman” has been playing the festival circuit, winning awards along the way.

Technically, it’s not a great documentary—basically talking heads–but it’s a likeable one, showing the lasting power of music, and it has a good payoff at the end.

In 1968, two producers went to a downtown Detroit bar to see an unknown recording artist, a charismatic Mexican-American singer/songwriter named Rodriguez, who had attracted a local following with his mysterious presence, soulful melodies and prophetic lyrics.

Immediately bewitched by the singer, they thought they had found a musical folk hero in the purest sense—they perceived the artist as sort of a Chicano Bob Dylan. After working with the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, they believed the album they subsequently produced with Rodriguez, Cold Fact, was their masterpiece of the highlight of their producing careers.

However, despite critical acclaim, Cold Fact was a commercial disaster and marked the end of Rodriguez’s recording career–before it had even started. As a result, Rodriguez sank back into obscurity.

All kinds of stories followed of his escalating depression, and eventually he fell off the music industry’s radar. It was rumored he had committed suicide, though there was no conclusive report of the exact circumstances. Of all the stories that circulated about his death, the most sensational, and the most widely accepted, was that Rodriguez had set himself ablaze on stage, after delivering these final lyrics: “But thanks for your time, then you can thank me for mine and after that’s said, forget it.” The album’s sales never revived, the label folded and Rodriguez’s music seemed destined for oblivion.

But this was not the end of Rodriguez’s story. A bootleg recording of Cold Fact found its way to South Africa in the early 1970s, when the country was becoming increasingly isolated during the Apartheid regime.

Rodriguez’s anti-establishment lyrics and politics as an outsider in urban America felt resonant for a whole generation of disaffected Afrikaners. The album developed an avid following through word-of-mouth among the white liberal youth.

In typical response, the reactionary government banned the record, including no radio play, which only served to further fuel its cult status.

At the center of the documentary is the mystery surrounding the artist’s death, which helped secure Rodriguez’s place in rock legend: Cold Fact quickly became the anthem of the white resistance in Apartheid-era South Africa. Over the next two decades Rodriguez became a household name in the country and Cold Fact went platinum.

Ultimately, this non-fictional work, which is one of the five Best Documentaries Oscar nominees, serves as a testament to hope, inspiration and, above all, the resonating power of music.