Rodriguez is alive and well and living in Rock N’ Roll U.S.A. His story may have never been told if not for a few crazed fans and an expertly crafted documentary by Malik Bendjelloul.
Searching for Sugar Man
Director: Malik Bendjelloul (2013)
His name is Sixto Rodriguez. Or, it could be Jesus Rodriguez? Or, it may just be Rodriguez? He may be in New York? He may be in Amsterdam? Or, he may be in Dearborn, Michigan, a city in the Detroit metropolitan area. He is bigger than Elvis Presley…but only in South Africa. In America, he is a nobody. He’s just another hard working man with a family. However, in 1970 and 1971 he wrote and recorded two albums that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in South Africa. Rodriguez was completely oblivious to his success and how famous he was on the other side of the world.
There were rumors that he shot himself on stage, rumors that he poured petroleum all over himself, and rumors that he overdosed. The big question at first wasn’t how do you find him, but how do you find out anything about him and how did he kill himself? Constructed as a documentary, Malik’s Bendjelloul’s film is unique in that it is also a mystery. No one knew who this Rodriguez person was. There is always information about artists out there in books, interviews, etc. But, nothing had been written about Rodriguez. In order to find out anything about him, interviews with record label executives were necessary, a fan forum (once the internet age came about) was created, and most intriguingly, searching the very lyrics that Rodriguez had wrote were used to track him down. His song entitled “Inner City Blues” reads “Met a girl from Dearborn, early six o’clock this morn,” and this was the first big breakthrough in trying to track him down. The internet forum was the second breakthrough. One of Rodriguez’s own daughters had posted “This is Rodriguez’s daughter. I’m serious.”
Utilizing animation, home footage, and some exquisite imagery juxtaposing the beauty of Cape Town, South Africa with the decay of Detroit Michigan, Bendjelloul is able to construct a three act play like any fiction story should feature. His documentary is informative, controversial, and captivating with the sense of mystery that it presents. Information about Rodriguez is withheld as it had been for the people tracking him down to create, in the end, a rewarding and emotional payoff. There is footage of Rodriguez’s first show in South Africa, an auditorium packed with at least 20,000 people. For these people, who have been listening to his music for so long and believing he was dead, to see him on stage must have felt like a dream. Bendjelloul makes it seem as it is even a dream for viewers of his film. With praise from people such as “bigger than Elvis Presley” and as good a song writer as Bob Dylan, it is shocking that no one in America knew who he was. An undiscovered pop artist sensation living in the slums of Detroit for twenty plus years after he released his music is a fascinating story. Music can be extremely powerful and influential for people. Bendjelloul understood that while making this film.
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