Rodriguez was the greatest '70s US rock icon who never was. Momentarily hailed as the finest recording artist of his generation, he disappeared into oblivion – rising again from the ashes in a completely different context a continent away.
Searching for Sugar Man could be the centrepiece of the 'You Can't Make This Stuff Up' film festival. A detective tale with more than one thrilling development, Swedish documentary-maker Malik Bendjelloul's film introduces much of the world to the music of a Mexican-American singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez.
Under his last name, Rodriguez recorded two albums (in 1970 and 1971), which sold "about 6 copies" according to the former Chairman of Motown Records who owned the label that released LPs Cold Fact and Coming from Reality. This despite the fact that his producers figured Rodriguez was better than Dylan in the social protest category. The label dropped him and the never high-profile Rodriguez dropped out of sight.
The casual photos that adorned his album covers showed a young Hispanic man wearing dark glasses; the liner notes revealed next to nothing about the guy.
From a review standpoint, Sugar Man poses a problem because the less you know, Dear Reader, the better. It's safe to keep reading, but you might just want to go see the film and – having almost certainly enjoyed yourself – then come back to this page.
Rodriguez never caught on in the U.S. although he performed live, here and there. Bartenders and construction workers in his Detroit neighborhood figured Rodriguez was perhaps a homeless man who sometimes took the stage, as likely to keep his back to the audience as not while strumming his guitar and singing his catchy, poetic lyrics.
"Seek and Ye shall find" is an ancient piece of advice. The scribes who jotted that down probably didn't have the Internet in mind.
South African record shop owner Stephen Segerman, like many of his contemporaries, loved Rodriguez' sound and admired his lyrics. Fans believed he had taken his own life while on stage – possibly with a bullet, possibly with gasoline and a lit match.
Nobody's sure how, exactly, Rodriguez' first record made its way to South Africa a few years after it flopped in America. One theory is that an American woman who had come to visit her South African boyfriend had brought it along in her suitcase.
"Every revolution needs a soundtrack," says a South African rock journalist. It was the height of Apartheid and the country was under sanctions. Rodriguez didn't snarl or shout but he sang tales of unfair situations, sex and self-determination against the odds. His gritty lyrics were a revelation in the then-conservative nation.
The same music that had attracted no notice in the USA ("American Zero, South African Hero" read a headline) caught on with a vengeance selling, by some estimates, half a million copies in South Africa. By one account he was "much bigger" than The Rolling Stones.
One authoritative interviewee asserts that in the mid-1970s in any liberal white middle class South African household with a turntable you'd be sure to find three record albums: The Beatles' Abbey Road, Simon & Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water and Cold Fact by Rodriguez.
How influential was Rodriguez? An archivist at the Archive of Censored Material in Johannesburg holds up a vintage vinyl record album for the camera: It wasn't enough to advise against playing certain tracks; authorities actually scratched the offending songs with sharp implements so they'd be unplayable.
How was it possible that a singer-songwriter hardly anybody had heard of in his own country was a household word in another country halfway around the world? Well, if you recorded one song, say, 40 years ago, you could be a huge hit in North Korea right now. How do you know you're not?
The Internet might not help you figure out whether you're climbing the charts in North Korea, but when Segerman in Cape Town posted a Web page seeking info about Rodriguez, something strange and unexpected happened. And then something even more unexpected happened. And then...
The film is structured for maximum suspense and only a curmudgeon would quibble about a few flourishes designed to pique our interest.
In addition to interesting music and memorable characters, the film offers a fascinating take on the nature of fame. It's beyond unlikely that Rodriguez would have availed himself of Facebook or Twitter had such things existed in his day. Like the late Neil Armstrong, who walked on the moon and then spent the rest of his life being thoroughly down-to-earth, Rodriguez offered his music to the world and then... well, you'll have to see the movie.
Searching for Sugar Man is a deeply satisfying filmgoing experience. And that's a cold fact about a warm investigation.