And yet, the makers of Searching for Sugar Man, a new documentary about a minor musical icon who did his recording more than 40 years ago, practically play the audience for Sixth Sense-levels of subterfuge. But does that kind of misdirection work when the nature of the film's "secret" is likely to be revealed if anyone does even the most cursory Googling before heading out to see it?
The simple answer to that question is "yes," but to go further, a little spoiling is going to be necessary. Before getting to that, I can tell you that the film is about Sixto Rodriguez, a little-known Detroit musician who recorded two sublime records of Cat Stevens/Bob Dylan-inflected singing and songwriting in the early '70s before getting unceremoniously dumped from his label for poor sales and quickly disappearing into obscurity.
Except, that is, in South Africa, where the anti-establishment bent of his songs dovetailed with the increased student involvement in the anti-apartheid movement, and his songs became a touchstone for the Afrikaner protest musicians of the '80s. First through traded bootlegs, and eventually through official re-releases in the country, Rodriguez became a massive star in South Africa—equal or greater in stature to Elvis and the Rolling Stones. Yet his fans there knew nothing of him apart from the music itself, plus somewhat sketchy reports of Rodriguez's onstage suicide years before the country discovered his music. Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul's film concentrates on the mid-'90s efforts of some ardent Rodriguez fans to unravel the mystery of this man.
What they found—and if you don't want to know what the twist is, this is your spoiler alert—came as a shock. Anyone watching who is unfamiliar with Rodriguez will also be shocked, because Bendjelloul cleverly places the viewer where the investigators are: in the dark, with the same misleading clues. From the film's prologue, Bendjelloul continually pushes the theory that everyone in South Africa had assumed was true: that Rodriguez had killed himself in spectacularly gruesome fashion at the end of a badly received concert.
The journalist who took it upon himself to finally verify that story, Craig Bartholomew, decided to approach it the same way he'd approach any investigative story: by following the money. The complex relationships of record labels and distributors involved, and the fact that this was in the pre-Internet mid-'90s, leads Bartholomew on a winding path that heightens the undercurrent of something not-quite-right going on.
As Bendjelloul retraces some of those steps, it seems plausible that he'll find something horrible at the end of his path. When the director interviews Clarence Avant, the former chairman of Motown records who was running the smaller Sussex Records imprint that signed and dropped Rodriguez, the music legend gets so agitated answering questions about Rodriguez that he nearly comes out of his chair to get in the "face" of the camera. Surely, one thinks, he's hiding something terrible.