SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN directed by Malik Bendjelloui (Sweden/UK, 2012)
On the forum of page of the website of Sixto Rodriguez, fans write to tell the world when they discovered this American singer-songwriter. Although his only two albums – Cold Fact and Coming From Reality – were released in 1970 and 1971 respectively, the vast majority of those posting say they first heard his songs after 2012. It is Bendjelloui’s affectionate documentary which has been instrumental in bringing him to the attention of a wider audience.
Until this time his fame was, bizarrely, confined to South Africa. There, his following was so huge that his admirers were not exaggerating to say that he was “bigger than Elvis”.
The albums had made little or no impact on American audiences but by a fluke they came into the hands of South African record buyers who identified with the singer-songwriter’s anti establishment stance and his compassion for life’s underdogs.
Stories circulated that Rodriguez had committed suicide onstage in the 1970s, so when an investigative musicologist found that rumors of his death were exaggerated his fans were incredulous and flocked to hastily arranged concerts.
I first discovered him yesterday after my daughter saw the movie at a one-off screening and came home raving about it. I watched it today on You Tube and understand why she was so enthusiastic. This is an amazing and heartwarming story which is astonishing in this day and age.
The music is good but inevitably dated and I would say it is the way Rodriguez has coped with the belated success that is the key to his appeal. With shades and leather jacket, he looks and acts every inch the cool outsider poet everyone imagined him to be. If he had gone to seed it is hard to see how the adulation would have been quite so intense. Although he is now in his seventies, he has adjusted to the turnaround in his life with remarkable sangfroid.
He still lives in a run down part of Detroit and, true to the anti-materialist messages in his songs, he has given most of the money he has earned to friends and family.
In short, he’s a hero for our times who should give hope to struggling artists everyone. He is living proof that it’s never too late to be an overnight sensation.