With the music industry crippled by piracy and the indie music scene defined by fleeting trends, rules, and brief pockets of cool, it’s hard to imagine the power some musicians could hold in the 60s and 70s. By plucking a guitar and spinning lyrics of autobiography and politics, musicians seemed like mythical figures with groupies. A man known simply as Rodriguez was one such character on that scene vying for Bob Dylan’s folk rock hero status. He produced only two albums, Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, and they barely sold a handful of copies. However, for some reason the albums became massive hits in South Africa where director Malik Bendjelloul and his generation kept their Rodriguez records next to their Beatles albums, holding them to the same culturally-defining standards.
Nothing was known about the singer beyond legends that he had burned himself alive on stage during his final performance. In the 90s a few fans set out to find anything about the singer and now ten years later Bendjelloul made this remarkable documentary about those fans, forgotten art, and unexpected legacies. Talking any further about the film delves into spoiler territory, and if you don’t need any more convincing I urge you to stop reading now and run out to the film as it’s designed for audiences unfamiliar with Rodriguez and his story. If you need a little more gentle nudging to get you into the theater, then read on brave spoiler soldier and know that you’ve been warned.
Bendjelloul begins his film Searching for Sugar Man by discussing the impact Rodriguez had on South African culture. The musician’s themes of revolution, free love, depressing oppression, and soft drug freedom were common to the musicians of his generation. It’s unclear why he specifically spoke so strongly to South Africans, though it may have been as simple as the fact that some of the singer’s songs were censored by the government and refused radio play with some stations even having records with certain songs scratched out so DJs didn’t even have the option. As a result, simply owning his albums felt like an act of rebellion for local youths. Regardless, the legend of Rodriguez spread out of the 70s and he became a South African pop icon for years. Part of the appeal came from the fact that with no success outside of the country, it was impossible for anyone to find information about his life and music. Legends of rock and roll suicide were spoken for years. Eventually in the 90s a music historian Stephen Segerman and rock journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom set out on a quest to at least find out who this forgotten superstar was. They spoke to adoring record producers who love Rodriguez’s music and never understood his lack of success. They heard stories of a soft-spoken artist so shy that he often performed live with his back to the audience. The more they learned, the deeper they fell into their Rodriguez obsession.
Eventually they set up a website pleading for any information and somehow one of Rodriguez’s daughters found it and got in touch. She told the two fanatics something they never expected. Rodriguez was in fact alive. He had retired from music after two commercial failures and for decades went back to a simple existence of manual labor, family, and friends in Detroit. They got in touch with the musician who had never heard of his cult success in South Africa and certainly never got any royalties. Then in 1997, he flew over to the country and despite not performing in years found himself on a stadium tour being treated like Elvis. There’s footage of this tour in the film and watching the 50-year-old man take the stage to accept the success that had eluded him for a lifetime is an undeniably magical and touching moment. Bendjelloul’s film wisely withholds information throughout, so that the mystery and discovery can be experienced by a fresh audience. There’s no denying that it is a remarkable story.
If you were to write this story as a fictional film, it would seem unbelievable, pat, and sentimental. Nothing is better suited to the documentary format that to-good-to-be-true life stories and Searching for Sugar Man is exactly that. Bendjelloul’s combines talking heads, archival footage, and the occasional burst expressive animation. It’s his first film, but crafted with the style and passion of a veteran. This is one of those stories that was begging to be told and Bendjelloul came in at just the right time, finding subjects thrilled to speak, and a wealth of archival footage waiting for eyeballs and appreciation. Rodriguez is just as enigmatic as you’d hope for such a mysterious figure, while also being humble, kind, and honest enough to be appealingly human. He’s returned to tour the country several time since his rediscovery, but never attempted to relaunch his career. He’s simply pleased to finally be discovered and sees no need to change a simple life that brought him happiness without fame. Even if Rodriguez’s admittedly dated music offers no appeal, the story is worth the ticket price alone. Documentaries like this are lightening in a bottle and music industry tales are rarely so pure and inspiring without VH1 Behind The Music theatrics. It’s not just a lovingly fan-crafted piece of music hero worship, but a fascinatingly human tale of the inexplicable power of art and unexpected redemption. Sounds heavy, yet the film is an entertaining breeze with brief flurries of emotion. It’s must see even if you don’t normally sample this sort of thing.