What happens when a Mexican-American singer-songwriter releases a great album of poetic and socially engaged songs that fail to sell in America, despite its inherent greatness? This is the beginning of the story of a man named Sixto Rodriguez, who began performing songs like Sugar Man in the bars and dives around Detroit, Michigan in the 1970s.
Even though I am familiar with the song, Sugar Man, I had never heard of Rodriguez before the film. So when news of Malik Bendjelloul's documentary came out, I was excited and intrigued to find out exactly who this enigmatic stylish character was — or is. The story behind Rodriguez has a kind of Spinal Tap mockumentary feel, except it's real, sad, heart-warming and incredible. Here's a man who has equal talent to someone like Bob Dylan, but despite what were apparently decent reviews in the music press, his album didn't sell, he was dropped by his label and in turn was lost to the music world forever. Until, to his surprise, he discovered that he had become a cult icon in the least obvious of places — South Africa.
This mysterious Detroit singer-songwriter became a source of hope and inspiration to a largely white middle-class generation of disillusioned music lovers in apartheid-era South Africa. Due to the 'banned' content of his albums, Rodiguez gained cult-status through the word-of-mouth and underground sharing of his music, only to completely disappear and be re-discovered again by his biggest fans on a mission to find their hero.
Watch the trailer for Searching for Sugar Man below:
Over the next two decades, Rodriguez became a household name in South Africa, where the number of copies of Cold Fact would have earned it platinum sales status, had it not been banned by the increasingly paranoid government. If that's not a great story for any film, I don't know what is.
The experience is still surreal for daughter, Eva Rodriguez, and Steve 'Sugar' Segerman, who've become instrumental in spreading the word about Rodriguez. It was back in 1997 when they had first met over a bizarre web post.
"We had started a website to find any information on Rodriguez and she saw our message board on the website and responded on 11 September 1997 and that's when I spoke to Eva and later that same night from Rodriguez," recalls Segerman. Before the website, all he had to stand on with regards to information about Rodriguez, was the ridiculous rumours surrounding the artist's "death".
Eva confirmed that Rodriguez wasn't dead, which propelled this story into unbelievable heights. "All of a sudden I knew that there were these two South Africans, Craig and Sugar, I don't know what to call them, maybe music geniuses, who had collected Rodriguez's vinyls and wanted to search and find out what happened," says Eva.
"An article was written about the search and they were looking for a singer they thought had died and found out he was alive. I got a fax copy of the article and [the] internet was relatively new in 1997, but I went online and the typed Rodriguez's music and the website popped up," she says.
Because it was a milk-carton website, Eva didn't know whether it was legitimate, but responded anyway. These events spiralled into the story of the Rodriguez we've now come to know. Eva says it was only in 1979, when they were in Australia and Rodriguez performed in front of an audience, that she realised her dad had this talent and fan-base, but it never happened again until South Africa.
The film explores the search and efforts to get the singer to play a concert in South Africa in 1998, which culminated into a very successful comeback tour that many local fans called "a once in a lifetime opportunity".
"He had said it was a like a fantasy or a fairy tale, there was so much disbelief that people had to convince us that this was real, so we'd ask people on the street if they knew Rodriguez and their reactions would convince us. When we saw the venues of 3000 and 5000 seaters, we kind of wondered if it was going to be filled. When people showed up at the concert, we realised they were there for Rodriguez and that was the moment we realised," says Eva, about their arrival in South Africa for the Rodriguez tour.
After the concert was done, the family thought it was a once-off, but the film has yet again resurrected Rodriguez's hauntingly poignant folk music and the internet continues to play a loyal part as ever in helping spread the Rodriguez gospel.
Segerman believes it is only the beginning: "Well we thought him touring South Africa was the last great thing and here we are, 15 years later. Now he's known in America and that was always the target. It's nice that he is known in South Africa, but he's American and it's about time the Americans woke up to this great artist living in their own country. And they have responded like that. They are absolutely blown away, they love this man and they love the fact that he existed."
The Rodriguez soundtrack has also been making the rounds and Eva says it's resulted in more tours around America, including landing a slot in the big time — performing on The Late Show with David Letterman just a few weeks ago — showing the scale that this particular story is about to escalate to.
Searching for Sugarman is a must-see for everyone.
The film opens at Ster-Kinekor Cinema Nouveau on 30 August. The soundtrack to the film is also available.