Reporting Eric Henderson
Who says there are no second acts?
The new documentary Searching for Sugar Man is an unlikely tale of resurrection, one which admittedly hinges a little bit on the fact that the folk-rock musician whose questioned fate remains a mystery among American audiences.
Rodriguez (the surname which served as stage name for a Mexican-American man born Sixto Diaz) cut a few albums in the early ’70s. His sound fit the era like a glove. He sounded part Dylan, part Baez, part VU, with detached vocals that almost suggested a male Karen Carpenter. His lyrics were both poetic and direct, like Robert Creeley poems with tangible calls to action.
But, for whatever reason, his music never gained any traction Stateside, despite a small cult following that insisted he’d gone out in a blaze of anti-glory — either burning out on drugs or, more gothically, committing suicide through self-immolation at the end of a performance. For all intents and purposes, and regardless of his musical value, Rodriguez seemed destined to remain a pop culture footnote.
Except that his albums were outselling nearly any artist in history half a world away. The Beatles may have been bigger than Jesus in Britain and America, but Rodriguez was bigger than the Beatles in southern Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Bigger than Elvis, too.
And yet he was nowhere to be found. That’s where Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary picks up the story, as two South African fans endeavor to find out exactly what happened to Rodriguez, to see how he died.
(Note: From here on out, “spoiler warnings” apply. And the fact that a documentary like this can inspire such a warning just goes to show how much of a low profile Rodriguez actually has had in America … up to this point, presumably.)
I had the chance to talk with both director Bendjelloul as well as Rodriguez a few weeks back during their press tour through Minneapolis.
Yes, I said I spoke with Rodriguez. As the filmmakers’ subjects found out, it turns out the man who was arguably one of the most famous musicians in modern history (albeit in a land far removed from his hometown in Michigan) had been living incognito for decades, picking up work in demolition and making a furtive stab at holding public office.
Though Rodriguez, now 70, would probably never admit it, he seems to be savoring the long-delayed fruits of artistic recognition. He dresses in stylish, black ensembles (which he says his daughter selects for him) and keeps his guitar strapped to his back even during conversation.
The self-taught musician started off playing guitar, playing along with songs on the radio and picking up tunes without the aid of lessons. Humble beginnings that would’ve led to a humble ending hadn’t Rodriguez’s music taken on new life in Apartheid-stricken South Africa, where his tales of the downtrodden became the soundtrack to a societal movement of unrest and protest.
As much of a mindblower that it was to find himself in the late 1990s being approached by fans curious to know whether he’d killed himself onstage, it was that much more amazing for Rodriguez to take the stage in South Africa before sold out crowds. (Rodriguez hadn’t seen it, but I told him the scene reminded me a lot of the climax of Anvil: The Story of Anvil — another documentary about underappreciated musicians.)
“You knew (their love) was genuine because they knew all of the lyrics,” said Rodriquez. “They helped me along with it through the night. And then six more shows.”
Director Bendjelloul chose a story that would’ve really told itself just fine, and in a traditional three-act structure to boot. But his movie, which took four years to assemble, also boasts the sort of high production values you’d expect given the producer team previously pulled together the likes of Man on Wire and Project Nim. Sugar Man utilizes animation, digital trickery and lush crane shots to depict Rodriguez’s environment but simultaneously suggest how his work would lift him back to an unexpected spotlight.
“It was like three different films in one,” Bendjelloul said. He was juggling the tale of a man’s recrudescent career, the history of South Africa and, to tie it all together, a detective story. And there’s still enough material to fuel a follow-up. There is still, for instance, the unresolved matter of what happened to all of the royalties Rodriguez is owed from the sales in South Africa, none of which he has seen. (That said, the government-censored album was widely bootlegged.)
Whether that turns into another film or not, the second act to focus on concerns Rodriguez, who Bendjelloul says has watched the movie now about 30 times. I asked him the all-important question of whether this brouhaha will spark a new album. He conceded the point that there is as much to protest these days as there ever was, but whether or not that will spark another “Crucify Your Mind” or “I Wonder,” only time will tell.