Practically every serious music fan has a story about the artist they love that no one else seems to know about, a musician who has talent and vision but lacks the good luck or business acumen that leads to fame and wealth. A number of record collectors and music critics will tell you Sixto Diaz Rodriguez belongs in this pantheon of the unjustly ignored; a gifted songwriter with a unique perspective and an affecting vocalist, Rodriguez cut a pair of superb albums in the early 1970s that received strong reviews but negligible sales, and he seemingly disappeared afterwards, living in a run-down house in his native Detroit and working as a manual laborer in near total obscurity. Where Rodriguez differs from most artists who never find fame and fortune is that he was in fact a major star -- not in the United States, but thousands of miles from his home, and for close to 20 years he knew nothing about it.
The true story of a neglected genius finally discovering his audience could certainly be the foundation of a fascinating film all by itself, but Malik Bendjelloul reveals there’s more to Rodriguez’s life than that in his documentary Searching for Sugar Man. As Rodriguez emerges from obscurity, we’re introduced to a remarkable, gifted artist who clearly values his muse and his principles far more than his bank account, and who unwittingly played a role in one of the most remarkable political upheavals of the 20th century.
Born and raised in Detroit, Rodriguez (he usually bills himself just by his last name) was discovered by Harry Balk, a record producer who also ran a small label. Rodriguez cut a single for Balk that went nowhere, but Balk suggested that Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, a pair of talented musicians and producers who had worked with Motown Records, give him a listen, and after seeing Rodriguez perform, they signed on to produce his first album, 1970’s Cold Fact. Cold Fact earned Rodriguez a deal with Sussex Records, the label that made Bill Withers a star, but Rodriguez’s songs, which told hard-edged tales of life on the streets with compassion and the soul of a poet, were a tough sell, and the album did poorly despite enthusiastic press. A second album recorded in London, 1971’s Coming From Reality, fared no better, and after he was dropped by Sussex, Rodriguez returned home, enrolled in college, and had little to do with music for many years. Subsequently, he raised a family, did construction work, and most of his friends knew nothing about his career in music.
However, unbeknownst to Rodriguez or the people he worked with, an American student visiting South Africa in the early 1970s brought along a copy of Cold Fact, and played it for several friends. The album touched a nerve with young people in South Africa, its literate but rebellious spirit appealing to a growing number of people who were disenchanted with South Africa’s isolationism and the brutal injustice of the apartheid system. Despite being banned by South African radio, Cold Fact became an underground hit, and after it was picked up for release by a South African label, it went on to sell more than 500,000 copies, a multi-platinum benchmark by that small nation’s standards.
Rodriguez’s music not only became a rallying cry for leftist youth in South Africa, it inspired a number of musicians who melded South African musical structures with Cold Fact’s artful folk-rock and incisive lyrics, and Rodriguez’s music played a tiny but very real role in turning the tide against the Afrikaner government that treated the black majority as something less than citizens.
However, in a nation where the news media viewed the rest of the world very selectively and which was the target of a United Nations cultural boycott, fans knew almost nothing about who Rodriguez really was, and an urban legend swept South Africa that Rodriguez was not only dead, but he had committed suicide onstage after a poorly received performance. In the mid-1990s, a fan set out to find out the truth about Rodriguez and his death, and after arduous search marked by more than a few dead ends, he finally made the discovery that the musician was actually alive and well in Detroit -- and entirely unaware that he was a star and a hero in South Africa. (Rodriguez also never received any royalties for those South African sales; no one seems certain where the money went, though Sussex founder Clarence Avant is more than a bit cagey when talking about finances.) In 1998, Rodriguez traveled to South Africa for a sold-out concert tour; footage from his first Cape Town shows is featured in Searching for Sugar Man, and he seems pleasantly shocked to be playing before tens of thousands of people who know his songs by heart, and the audience in turn is amazed to be seeing a man who, as far as they were concerned, literally came back from the dead.
There’s no arguing this is a remarkable story, and director Malik Bendjelloul tells it beautifully, creating a powerful sense of mystery and discovery even when we’re tipped off to how the story ends, and the film’s superb photography and imaginative use of animation keeps what could have been a collection of talking-head interviews visually compelling. Bendjelloul also understands the importance of characters, and balances the personalities of his subjects well, especially superfan Stephen Segerman (whose nickname “Sugar Man” came from one of Rodriguez’s songs), journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom (it was his determination to find out the facts about Rodriguez’s death that led to the artist’s rediscovery), and Eva and Regan Rodriguez, the singer’s daughters, who speak of their father with love and respect even when they seem puzzled by some of his life choices. And Rodriguez himself turns out to be a magnificent enigma, a soft-spoken and articulate man who has no regrets about the sometimes curious path his life has taken, and who prefers to live a very modest existence on his own terms rather than attempt to create art under anyone else’s watch. In a very real way, the flesh-and-blood Rodriguez is almost as much of a mystery as the legend that was built around him in South Africa, and that helps to make Searching for Sugar Man just as fascinating as the story that inspired it, and as emotionally satisfying as the music that was the foundation of his legend.
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