It is not unusual for American musicians to be celebrated more abroad than at home. For decades, jazz musicians found more success in Europe than America. Rockers too, particularly rockabilly and other roots musicians, have maintained their careers due to fans in foreign lands. Few musicians, however, have had severe career dichotomy as the singer-songwriter known as Rodriguez. The new documentary Searching For Sugarman explores the unique career of this man – a virtual unknown in America but a revered musician in South Africa.
Swedish filmmaker Malik Bedjelloul has fashioned this documentary as something of a detective tale, which makes sense considering all the mystery surrounding Rodriguez. The documentary begins with South African Rodriguez superfan Stephen “Sugar” Segerman (whose nickname partially derives from the Rodriguez song “Sugarman”) talking about how this mysterious American musician named Rodriguez was very popular in his nation although people knew little about him. His 1970 debut album Cold Fact contained little personal information and there weren’t articles about him in the music press. Also, in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, there wasn’t the Internet available to track down the cold facts about Rodriguez so rumors swirled – stories circulated among South African fans that he had died (one story was that he killed himself on stage setting himself on fire). Segerman even says no one really knows how Rodriguez’s extremely obscure album even got to South Africa in the first place.
Bedjelloul builds a portrait of Rodriguez from those who worked with him. In Detroit, he interviews Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey (two Motown men who “discovered” Rodriguez and produced his first album, Cold Fact) along with construction worker pals of Rodriguez (he did house demolition work in Detroit after his music career stalled) who knew little of his musical past.
The film jumps between South Africa where people talk about Rodriguez’s music filled an important role during the anti-Apartheid era and describe him as “more popular than Elvis”) and America where people (like Steve Rowland, the producer of Rodriguez’s second album Coming From Reality who calls him a “prophet”) praise his work while scratching their heads over his total lack of success. The Rodriguez mystery starts to resolve when Segerman and another big Rodriguez fan, South African journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom, begin trying to learn more about him. There’s a marvelous moment where Segerman talks about getting a phone call from one of Rodriguez’s daughters (who had discovered the website Segerman about Rodriguez) telling him that her father is still alive and he actually calls Segerman later in the middle of the night to talk.
It’s around an hour in before Rodriguez, the man, makes his first actual appearance in the film. Even as he is somewhere in his late ‘60s, Sixto Rodriguez is a lanky man with long black hair and a rocker’s aura. For a man who filled his songs with a rush of words, he is quite modest and plainspoken in real life. Film interviews with his three daughters, however, help to fill in his background: his work as a home demolition man, his degree in philosophy and his unsuccessful attempt to run for local office (including having his name spelled wrong on a ballot).
After the discovery that he is alive, Rodriguez gets invited to perform in South Africa. A daughter who accompanied him reveals how shocked she was that a limo and paparazzi were at the airport for them. She had no idea of his popularity. She figured that maybe 20 people would come to the show, not six sold-out arena performances. Footage from the concerts shows him quite at ease. Someone mentions that it was like he found his home on stage. Rodriguez describes this experience as making him “feel like more than a prince.”
Besides revealing Rodriguez’s unusual story, the documentary also does a great job of sharing his music too. The film’s soundtrack is loaded with Rodriguez’s old songs, which are as impressive as his admirers proclaim. There is more than a little Dylan (a man who manufactured a lot of mystery around him) in Rodriguez’s story-songs along with a bit of Phil Ochs’ socio-political content. Rodriguez, however, was very much the gritty urban poet, writing about the world around him. Listeners can also James Taylor in his laidback, soul vocals and the arrangements (particularly in Taylor’s Apple debut) and some Jose Feliciano in his phrasing.
Bedjelloul nicely shows how Rodriguez’s politically-edged tunes resonated with young liberal-minded anti-Apartheid Afrikaners under the controlling regressive regime. He isn’t as successful, however, in exploring the Detroit socio-economic environment, shedding only a little light on how tumultuous the city was in the late Sixties and early Seventies.
The filmmaker gives his documentary a smart look (utilizing archival footage, recreations and animation), although it suffers from some awkward structuring. There isn’t a sense until late in the movie that this search really occurred in the late Nineties with Rodriguez’s triumphant concerts taking place in 1998. The interviews similarly give the impression that it is happening more in the present day. This approach also begs the question on what has been going on since 1998. While there are some postscript notes about Rodriguez, one doesn’t really hear about the growing buzz about Rodriguez or that his albums have been reissued in America by Light In The Attic Records. Moreover the documentary doesn’t mention his popularity in Australia over the years or even that he made a single a few years before Theodore and Coffey recorded him, although it is hard for a documentary to hold all the information about its subject.
One important question that the documentary doesn’t fully answer is: “where’s the money?” Bartholomew-Strydom asks, in the film, what happened to royalty money that Rodriguez should have received for his South African album sales. Both he and Bedjelloul ask some record label people (in South Africa and America) about it, no one has a straight, definitive answer. The issue slips back into the movie’s shadows, particularly since Rodriguez doesn’t express outrage over the missing money, but still it remains a significant unanswered question.
These shortcomings, however, don’t diminish Sugarman’s effects. This impressive documentary tells the captivating story of a talented but little-known musician with a truly intriguing life.