Looking for something to watch on Netflix this weekend? Look no further.
SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN (2012 Sony)
Directed by Malik Bendjelloul
Like the rest of the world outside of South Africa (and Australia), I had never heard of the American singer Sixto Rodriguez.
If I had, I could all but guarantee I would have been a fan. With a rare songwriting ability often compared to Bob Dylan, the artist known only as Rodriguez released two albums in the early 70’s. He sounded something like Dylan hanging out with Neil Diamond and Johnny Cash, with the sadness of Nick Drake. His voice, like those of Dylan and Cash, communicated volumes of emotion. After he was dropped by his label, he disappeared completely. What he did not realise is that change was coming to South Africa that he would one day be a part of.
They think his music first arrived in Apartheid-era South Africa via a bootleg tape that made the rounds. Cold Fact (1970) and its followup Coming From Reality (1971) were of a remarkable quality, but with socially conscious lyrics that struck a chord. Rodriguez became immensely popular among the people, who were tired of racism and felt Rodriguez’ music was valid to their country. Some songs were banned completely. The government didn’t like it, and scratched the songs out of the records so they could not be played. But no government lasts forever.
Nobody in South Africa even knew who Rodriguez was. Even his full name wasn’t obvious. His albums had credits with names such as “Jesus Rodriguez” and “Sixth Prince”, but nothing confirming the artist’s identity. The story was he killed himself in a spectacular fashion, on stage. The tale wasn’t consistent. In one version, he doused himself with gasoline and set himself alight. In another, she shot himself on stage. These stories helped propel his popularity in South Africa to a level beyond even Elvis or the Beatles. And he had no idea any of this was happening.
Hard core fans and musical detectives were determined to find out what happened to Rodriguez. They followed the money, but nobody was paying the artist for South African CD reissues. They poured through his lyrics for clues as to his whereabouts. References to Amsterdam were misleading, and clues scarce. “How did Rodriguez die?” was the only question on the searchers’ list. Imagine their surprise when Rodriguez’ daughter in Detroit Michigan discovered the searchers online, and contacted them to tell that Rodriguez was alive and well and living modestly in the city! Many South Africans thought this impossible, and fully expected it to be a hoax. Only when he arrived and played a series of concerts in the country did they realise this was no impostor. It was akin to Elvis returning for a comback today.
Searching For Sugar Man maintains the mystery. That seems to be the way Rodriguez wants it. Now that his fame in South Africa has finally caught up with him, he gives most of his newfound wealth away to family and friends. The voice is intact, and so is the mystique. The movie has given him a second chance in music, and he has returned to the stage for the first time since a brief tour in Australia in 1979, where he maintained a small pocket of fandom. Rodriguez will be playing the Centre in the Square in Kitchener Ontario, on Sept 10.
A rare of example of bass clarinet in popular music.