SEARCHING For Sugar Man was the movie that blew away audiences, judges and the toughest crowd of all – the critics – at last month’s Sundance Film Festival, the premier showcase for independent film held each January in Park City, Utah, the largest of its kind in the US.

The documentary had Sundance opening weekend audiences on their feet cheering, scooped an audience award as well as a special jury prize, and was instantly snapped up by Sony Classic Pictures. Not bad for a labour of love germinated right here in Cape Town that took Malik Bendjelloul, a Swede without any feature-directing experience, three years to make with a minimal budget and was edited on a laptop.

For decades the folk singer Rodriguez (full name Sixto Diaz Rodriguez) was central to the lives of many white South Africans, his provocative anti-establishment lyrics speaking volumes in the dark age of apartheid and censorship. If you had a turntable, chances are you owned a copy of his first album, Cold Fact, released in 1970. It’s a record that has crossed generations and politics; heck, my 22-year-old son has it, and knows the words to I Wonder.

How that first (probably bootlegged) record came to this country is still something of a mystery, and while Rodriguez’s popularity grew here – fuelled by myths and urban legends of his various on-stage suicides and jail time – he somehow slipped between the cracks of his home town Detroit and the rest of the world in general.

In SA Rodriguez was bigger than Elvis. In the US he was an unknown construction worker whose attempt at being a singer appeared to have failed dismally. He had a family, dabbled in politics, and got a degree in philosophy, oblivious to what was going on here.

While Searching For Sugar Man has been picked up for international release there are no concrete plans for it to be shown here yet so I was fortunate to see it at a private screening at the home of Stephen Segerman. It is truly touching, poignant and uplifting.

“It’s a movie that beats you up then gives you a big hug at the end,” said Segerman, as I tried to hide the tears that had welled up from the very first scene.

Segerman, whose nickname for many years has in fact been Sugar Man, is the owner of the best little record shop in Cape Town, Mabu Vinyl, and a long-time fan of Rodriguez. His personal quest to track down Rodriguez, dead or alive, is a big part of how the film came to be made. The advent of the internet didn’t hurt either.

In the late 1990s, two independently created websites – The Great Rodriguez Hunt, which set out to find Rodriguez, and Climb Up On My Music, a tribute site to the life and works of Rodriguez – finally bore fruit. The story of how that happened is told in the film, when one of Rodriguez’s daughters saw Segerman’s site and contacted him.

The two sites combined into www.sugarman.org, one central online repository for Rodriguez information and endorsed by the family.

Once contact had been made and it was established beyond reasonable doubt that Rodriguez had not ever shot himself or set himself on fire on stage, the next step was to bring him to SA. The footage of those sold-out concerts at the Bellville Velodrome in March 1998 is the stuff of goosebumps.

On the website Rodriguez says, in a quote from that time: “I’ve never even played a gig in America, my home country. I’ve jammed informally with friends, yes, but never a formal concert. Nobody was ever interested in my music.”

When Bendjelloul came to Cape Town on holiday in 2006, he hooked up with Segerman. “This crazy guy Malik just pitched up one day… the nicest guy you ever met,” says Segerman. “He had been making short music doccies for Swedish TV, and they had sent him out to go find stories. He got some funding and interest in the Rodriguez story, and gave up his life and his job to make the film.”

In an interview with the NY Times Bendjelloul said: “I heard this story about this mystery rocker and was speechless. How could this even be true? I’ve been obsessed ever since.”

Bendjelloul added he was relieved when he subsequently heard Rodriguez’s music, which is woven deeply into Searching for Sugar Man. “If I didn’t like the music, it would have lost something, like my interest,” he said.

Searching For Sugar Man is not only a beautifully crafted movie, but also an inspiring tale that will resonate with many South Africans. At the same time it has made the rest of the world aware of one of its previously unrecognised but most talented and humble musicians. - Weekend Argus