True story – in the early 1970s, two record company executives received a tip to go to a dingy club in downtown Chicago to see a musician perform, a purportedly a creative genius and a promising new talent. Inside the small smoky club against the wall in the back of the room, they saw a guy singing and strumming an acoustic guitar with his back facing the audience, too shy to look at the audience directly. Believing they had discovered what could be the next big thing in popular music, or possibly “the next Dylan”, they signed the artist, known only as Rodriguez, to a contract.
Rodriguez released a folk rock album, Cold Fact on a subsidiary label of a major recording company. It sold, as one company executive half-jokingly recalls “about six copies.” After giving his budding musical career a fairly good shake (a second album, a tour of England, and a move to California) Rodriguez abandoned his career and faded into obscurity.
Meanwhile in South Africa, a bootleg copy of Cold Fact was smuggled into the apartheid country of the early ’70s, becoming a major success. The bootleg and subsequent pressings of it were circulated and sold to an estimated half million copies. In the two decades since its unofficial release in South Africa, Cold Fact had reached platinum sales level.
With precious little information available on Rodriguez, South Africans living in the media-controlled apartheid country, believed Rodriguez to be akin to other western musical imports like The Rolling Stones or Dylan. One South African of the era recalls that Rodriguez’ albums (a second album soon found its way to similar success) were as commonplace as The Beatles’ Abbey Road in any given record collection. The music was “the soundtrack to our lives” and was embraced by an oppressed generation who heard it as their own voice speaking out against Apartheid.
The Swedish/British documentary film Searching For Sugar Man, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, currently playing the indie movie house circuit, follows two South African fans of Rodriguez – Stephen Segerman and Craig Bartholomew – as they attempt to uncover what had become of Rodriguez, known as Sugar Man, from the title of one of his songs. With the unexpected realization that Rodriguez was unknown outside of South Africa, and nothing but a few albums as clues, the two fans, discovering each other searching for Rodriguez independently on the Internet, embark on a quest to find him.
One thing they were fairly certain of: he was dead. Rumors had long evolved into acceptance that in a state of severe depression, Rodriguez had shot himself in the head on stage during a concert. Another story was that he had doused himself with gasoline and ignited. So solid was the belief in his demise that it was taken for granted by South African music listeners, that Rodriguez’ death was one of the most sensational celebrity deaths ever.
But if you believe in music’s ability to change the cultural landscape and pave the way to a brighter future, you’ll want to see Searching for Sugar Man. The film is not only a quirky and impassioned detective story with a warm and wonderful payoff, but a joyous testimony to artistic triumph over adversity. After exhausting every avenue: record labels, retired executives, and countless Internet inquiries, the two fans hit paydirt from the music itself, after scrutinizing the lyrics of a Rodriguez’ songs.
Rodriguez’ haunting and uplifting music plays throughout the film and offers a gentle plea for tolerance in a hostile world. The film is often beautifully photographed with stunning vistas of South Africa’s sunny blue skies and rising mountains, and raw and striking urban snowy landscapes of anonymous Chicago streets after dark.
The story of Rodriguez will leave you with a warm glow and a yearning to indulge in his once forgotten music.