By Joan Ellis
Have you heard of Rodriguez? Not likely. His story might never have surfaced if two South African sleuths had not decided to unravel the mystery of the Mexican-American folk singer’s past. We can be glad they did, and happier still that Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul wrote, directed and co-produced this documentary, Searching for Sugar Man.
Rodriguez recorded two albums in America. After both failed, his music made an odd and unexpected journey to South Africa where, during the Apartheid protests, they became enormous hits in an angry culture. Because Rodriguez was nowhere to be seen while his music spread wildly throughout the country, mystery enveloped the man. Rumors spread. Had the new icon committed suicide? Had he even, as one rumor had it, set fire to himself on stage in mid-concert?
Journalist Craig Bartholomew and Stephen Segerman (aka Sugar after a Rodriguez song) were so intrigued by the mystery that they eventually joined forces with Bendjelloul. Bendjelloul interviews both men about their search to a background soundtrack of Rodriguez’s 1970s musical protests against inequality. His enthusiastic agents released his albums (Cold Fact and Coming from Reality) in what came to be known as America’s narcissistic decade, a time when this country was taking one of its periodic breaks from protest and awareness. South Africa was in a far different mood, and Cold Fact went platinum.
As the interviews produce one answer at a time, the puzzle of the man who was Rodriguez takes shape. Clues in hand, the searchers track their musician’s back-story to its working class roots in Detroit where it suddenly makes great sense that the city’s downward spiral was the natural seedbed for Rodriguez’ alternately sad and angry music. An hour or so into the film, you can be forgiven for wondering what lies ahead in this tale of a man unknown in his own country. And, you may wonder, why it is that suspense has crept into your bones.
Just let this documentary tell you about the nature of a man who had a world of music and emotion in him but little interest in the ways of celebrity and commercial success. We are still quite unprepared for the impact of the back-story of a folksinger who, in this age of communication, remained immune to its temptations. The portrait Bendjelloul has painted is striking in its poignancy and thoroughly rewarding to those of us who had never before heard of Sixto Rodriguez.
This is not a familiar story. It is instead the story of a man and the unfamiliar and unique set of values that enrich people who learn about him. Long after we leave the theater, the questions linger. What about the cultural conditions in America and in South Africa made Rodriguez a commercial failure in one country and a legend in the other? And, above all, what made this man so complete within himself? What made him resist what others seek?
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.