The last of the mythical rock stars

Searching for Sugar Man’s tale of a forgotten folk-rock legend harks back to a time when mystery in pop music was still possible.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

Topics Culture

In 1970, Sixto Diaz Rodriguez seemed destined for folk-rock stardom.

Having garnered a cult following in his home town of Detroit, he signed a record contract and was provided with A-list producers and musicians to record his debut album, Cold Fact. His lyrics were impassioned and politically engaged. Those who worked with Rodriguez – as he came to be known – thought he had the potential to surpass Bob Dylan and, with the counter-culture in full-swing, there was already an established market for his anti-establishment anthems. Yet despite all the machinery being in place, the album was a complete flop. The suits at his label had such tremendous faith in Rodriguez’s talent that despite this initial loss they commissioned a second album. Unfortunately, Coming from Reality, which appeared in 1971, was another commercial disaster and the singer-songwriter was soon dropped.

His dreams dashed, Rodriguez studied for a degree in philosophy before returning to Detroit and getting a low-paying job demolishing houses. However, while Rodriguez’s two albums seemed destined to line the bottom of truck-stop bargain bins in the US, his music found a new following years later in Apartheid-stricken South Africa. While no one is entirely sure how this happened, given that Rodriguez was never distributed outside of the US, a copy of Cold Fact made its way to the country and started circulating. A South African record label later made a deal to reissue the album and, before long, Rodriguez had outsold Elvis and The Rolling Stones in the country. Yet, being long out of touch with his old record label, Sixto wasn’t paid a cent in royalties. As far as he was concerned, he was a musical has-been and rumours spread in South Africa that he had long since committed suicide.

In the late Nineties, a few intrepid South African musicologists set out to find out a little more about this enigmatic icon. With nothing but the man’s lyrics as a guide, they managed to track down his family, hoping only to find out how and why he died. Instead, they discovered he was alive and well and they brought Rodriguez to South Africa to play a string of sold-out arena shows. Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary directed by newcomer Malik Bendjelloul, seeks to bring this unique story to the eyes of Westerners who, to this day, are still largely unaware of Rodriguez’s music and impact. The result is a gripping and uplifting film that dutifully attends to the mythology surrounding Rodriguez, even if it means being a little cavalier with the truth.

Bendjelloul starts by fleshing out Rodriguez’s beginnings in the corner-bar dives of Detroit. Speaking to label executives alongside down and outs who once shared a cocaine dealer with the man himself, they all describe him as an eccentric drifter who would perform with his back to the audience and arrange meetings with his label in alleyways. Rather than delving too far into his past, Bendjelloul presents Rodriguez as an urban minstrel who landed, fully formed, in the world wearing dark shades and singing the song of the oppressed. This is clearly the image the director is most intoxicated by and he is careful to explore his subject without ever puncturing this conception.

Soon, the film’s focus shifts to South Africa and, meeting with fans, journalists and musicians who idolise Rodriguez, Bendjelloul reflects upon how Cold Fact helped spark political consciousness in South African music at a time when the government’s censorious laws stamped out dissent among white Afrikaners. These interviews are a shining testament to the power of music to affect individuals on a political as well as personal level and this is made all the more tantalising by the knowledge that during this time Rodriguez was gutting houses in Detroit completely unawares.

The story sounds almost too good to be true and, unfortunately, it is – at least in that the director has been somewhat selective with what he has chosen to include. For example, one little nugget of information Bendjelloul chooses to leave out is the fact that Rodriguez was popular in Australia and toured there a few times in the late Eighties. This seems to have been avoided as it would undermine the idea that, as far as the world was concerned, Rodriguez had disappeared without a trace and that he had no idea that anyone had ever even heard his music.

However, these omissions don’t constitute complete contrivance and, if anything, help to focus the film on its true subject, which isn’t Rodriguez himself, but his devoted South African fans and the mythology surrounding him. Indeed, Rodriguez’s music thrived in a South Africa which was isolated by international sanctions and where the flow of information was so tightly controlled that the vinyl grooves of his most inflammatory songs were physically scratched so that no one would be able to play them. In this context, it is completely understandable that none of his South African fans were aware that he was alive and available for bookings. The legend this helped to forge as well as the role he took in awakening many of their political consciences is the real meat of the story.

When we are finally shown the interview with Rodriguez which the entire film builds towards, there is a definite sense that the singer himself is eager to maintain a measure of mystique, or at least privacy. He is softly spoken, kind and endearing but doesn’t give much away, and it is to the film’s credit that it manages to document and even interview the legend without prying too deeply into the man.

In the internet age, it’s increasingly difficult for our music icons to have any real mystery, and yet in the past it has so often been such an important part of the package. When Robert Zimmerman first left Minnesota to pursue a music career, he changed his name to Bob Dylan and concocted a bizarre back-story, involving running away with a travelling circus, which he would recount to journalists and admirers, helping to forge his legendary stature in the New York folk scene. Of course, we now know he was fibbing. But today it seems near impossible for an artist to have quite the same sort of intrigue when a quick Wikipedia search can instantly demystify them. With Searching for Sugar Man, Malik Bendjelloul paints a unique picture of a time and a place in which mystery in pop music was still possible. More importantly, its soundtrack presents us with a small but beautiful body of work that is truly deserving of a full-blown revival.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for Searching for Sugar Man:

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