by Geraldine on 04/01/13 at 4:56 am
Two South Africans set out to discover what happened to their unlikely musical hero, the elusive 1970s singer-songwriter, Sixto Rodriguez.
The singer-songwriter known only by the name of RODRIGUEZ was somewhat mysterious even before he was picked-up and promoted in the late-60s by some music industry big shots. An enigmatic character, or perhaps just a homeless drifter, who played the odd gig in his home city of Detroit, facing the wall or with his face in the shadows, to never speak a word and disappear without a trace as the last chord still hung in the smoke-filled air…
He recorded two albums, the first produced by Steve Rowland, no less, released by A&M on Motown’s Sussex Label in 1971 and 1972 to great optimism and rave reviews comparing him to Bob Dylan. Despite which both albums tanked dismally, his record contract was terminated and Rodriguez vanished as swiftly as he had appeared.
Some bootleg copies of the discs, however, made their way across the world to South Africa, where they somehow found an audience – initially by word of mouth – before they even had local distribution. His street lyrics, together with his haunting melodies and unique voice, touched a chord with young, liberal whites and his music, banned by the radio stations, helped to fuel the anti-apartheid movement. The artist known as Rodriguez – and the name was all that anybody knew about him – became iconic, inspired a generation, and sold more records over there than Elvis! There were many rumors about his presumed death by suicide: he is believed to have shot himself, OD’d, or self-immolated onstage, yet none of these conflicting speculations was ever confirmed, nor did any further information about Rodriguez ever come to light.
Moving forward several decades to the 90s, a few of his ardent fans, one of whom was an investigative journalist, decided to go in search of the truth behind the rumors and find out the cause of his tragic demise. Traveling to the US, they were astonished to discover that no one had ever even heard of Rodriguez! In desperation they set up a website to trawl for information and, to their utter disbelief, received a reply from one of his daughters who, in turn, put them on to the man himself – still alive and well, and working on the building sites in his native Detroit, blissfully ignorant of his huge success and megastar status on the other side of the world.
Needless to say, he never saw a penny of the South African royalties earned by his two albums. An interview with Clarence Avant, former Motown chairman, cast no further light on the matter. Aggressive and vague when asked where the money went, he merely blustered, unable to provide a satisfactory explanation. Another music bizz casualty, you might say, but Rodriguez was totally unfazed upon discovering that he’d been a superstar for decades – leaving all the astonishment to his daughters and construction-site co-workers – as the documentary moves towards its emotional climax and Sixto Rodriguez finally gets the artistic recognition he deserves, performing to thousands of devoted fans.
Malike Bendjelloul’s exciting and uplifting documentary takes us seamlessly from Cape Town to Detroit and back – courtesy of Camilla Skagerstrom’s cinematography expertise – underscored with the music of Rodriguez himself (mostly from his first COLD FACTS album), and the addition of archive material with a sprinkling of some clever link-up animation. For me personally, SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN is not only the year’s best documentary, but one of the best movies of 2012 overall.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (Sweden/UK 2012); Genre: Music documentary; Running time: 86 min; Distributor/Release date: (US) Sony Pictures Classics/July 27 (limited); Germany: Rapid Eye Movies/Dec. 27; Director: Malike Bendjelloul; Featuring: Stephen Segerman, Dennis Coffey, Mike Theodore, Dan Dimaggio, Jerome Ferretti, Steve Rowland, Willem Moller, Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, Ilse Assmann, Steve M. Harris, Robbie Mann, Clarence Avant, Eva Rodriguez, Sixto Rodriguez, Regan Rodriguez, Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy, Rick Emmerson, Rian Malan; Rated PC 13
For more information: www.rapideyemovies.de/