The music documentary Searching for Sugar Man had its world premiere earlier this year at Sundance. A fitting place since this is, according to its Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, “an American story.” It is also a Detroit story, a story about the music industry, but most of all, it is the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a man whose fate partly seems to mirror that of his hometown. Had this been a just world, the multicultural, multi-ethnic working class of Detroit would have lived a good life based on its historic contributions to the nation’s material and cultural wealth. But, there being no justice for the labouring majority without successful class struggle, Motor City – Motown – has been a city in deep social crisis for decades.
Rodriguez, born in 1942, was “discovered” during a gig in a smoky bar towards the end of the sixties by two producers who had worked with names like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. They saw in him a new Bob Dylan. He recorded two albums that were praised by critics but didn’t sell. Perhaps his name didn’t fit his music? A Latino was not expected to play folk rock. Or maybe his lyrics were too political? His second album was released in November 1971. “Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas” is the opening line of one of the songs. The record company cancelled Rodriguez’s contract in mid-December that same year.
Sixto Rodriguez went back to his old life. He worked in a car factory and as a demolition man. He came to work wearing a tuxedo and did all the dirtiest and heaviest jobs. He raised his daughters. They lived in 26 different houses, many without bedrooms and bathrooms. But he took them to libraries and museums, taught them to appreciate Diego Rivera and Picasso. He studied philosophy at the university. Ran for mayor unsuccessfully. Fought for the rights of the poor and voiceless.
This could have been the end of the story. But what Rodriguez didn’t know, as he was carrying old fridges on his back down stairs in a crumbling Detroit, was that his name and his music were as famous in South Africa as those of The Stones and The Beatles. For this is also a South African story. That was where Bendjelloul first heard of the musician who was “world famous” in South Africa, but unknown in the rest of the world.
Nobody knows for sure how Rodriguez’s music came to South Africa, but once there it spread like the wildfire, not least among liberal white youth. Despite, or perhaps partly because of, the regime’s strict censorship. In a country that didn’t even have television until 1976, because the medium was considered “Communist,” Rodriguez’s stories from below with their edge of social criticism helped liberate minds force-fed on apartheid propaganda. And, since no one knew anything about the man who had disappeared into oblivion in his own country, all kinds of rumours and myths flourished. Rodriguez had killed himself on stage, set himself on fire or blown his brains out with a gun. When the apartheid regime fell Rodriguez’s albums were released on CD selling hundreds of thousands of copies. But still no one knew what had happened to the artist. Not, that is, until the internet became a household phenomenon (among the middle class, at least). Then, towards the end of the nineties, a music journalist and a jeweller turned record shop owner finally tracked him down to Detroit.
Searching for Sugar Man is a beautiful film, even a grandiose one at times. Simple but elegant animations dissolving into the real, harsh and semi-abandoned, streets of Detroit transport us in time between the seventies and today. A wintry, snow-covered Detroit is strikingly contrasted to the sunburnt rocks of the Cape Town coast. Most importantly, Rodriguez’s music, dominating the soundtrack, penetrates mind and heart equally. At the same time, this is a film that never quite penetrates the man Rodriguez. He remains intensely private, though always with a humble, disarming smile on his lips. When we take leave of him – stoking a fire in a small stove to keep his spartan home warm – it is still the myth rather than the man we see. But maybe this is all for the best. Maybe we need good, life-affirming myths now more than ever.
Returning home after the screening I do some web research and discover a couple of details that slightly alter the picture. It wasn’t only in South Africa that Rodriguez achieved some fame. During the seventies and early eighties he also met with certain success in Australia and New Zealand. He toured Australia at least twice, the second time, in 1981, along with Midnight Oil.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International‘s editor-in-chief.