But they hadn't. On the other side of the world, a South African guy is dating an American girl. She owns one of the few Rodriguez albums ("Cold Fact"), starts to play it at parties, and the music connects perfectly with a frustrated generation of white South Africans.
They support the end of apartheid, but protest in the locked-down police state is forbidden. Spies and informants and infiltrators report dissent, and you can be jailed for three years for saying the wrong thing. You can't protest in public, but you can play a Rodriguez song. His albums are banned, and yet sell as many copies as the Beatles or Simon and Garfunkel and more than the Rolling Stones.
Apartheid ends, but Rodriguez's music endures as a permanent, classic part of the country's musical and cultural history. He becomes a legend in South Africa, in part because of his obscurity. Nobody knows his country of origin (the bootlegged albums contain scant information).
All that is known, or thought to be known, was a rumor that he gruesomely killed himself onstage. So a group of fans and journalists launch a search for the man behind the music, and what they find forms the emotionally powerful core of "Searching."
It emerges an amazing piece of biography and a sardonic expose of music-industry corruption. Rodriguez knew nothing of his star status in South Africa and never saw any of the money.
The movie is also a fascinating look at changes brought about through the digital age: viral marketing in its analog form and the power of the Internet to resolve mysteries like Rodriguez.
To the extent they can be resolved. The man at the center of "Sugar Man" remains a wonderful enigma, despite the insight and eloquence of those who love him and love his music. His songs (newly reissued) enrich the narrative, and as the artist himself might say, they tell you everything about him you need to know.
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "Keep It Reel," at philly.com/keepitreel.
Review | ssss
Searching for Sugar Man
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul. Distributed by Sony Classics.
Running time: 90 minutes
Parent's Guide: PG
Playing at: Ritz Five