‘Searching for Sugar Man’ documentary rediscovers musician Sixto Rodriguez
By David Malitz,
Sixto Rodriguez is standing in a Georgetown hotel room examining a poster for the new documentary “Searching for Sugar Man.” The poster is a photograph of him surrounded by blurbs of critical praise, clusters of four stars and logos of renowned film festivals. He’s 40-odd years younger in that photo, but looks pretty much the same today — a mass of thick black hair, black jacket, black pants, dark glasses. In the poster, he’s walking alone, down the middle of a street, with a guitar strapped to his back. It’s the perfect picture of a mystical troubadour.
Maybe a little too perfect.
“I’m not actually wearing that guitar,” he says. “They added that.”
It’s just a minor Photoshop accouterment but you still have to wonder: Why? The story of Rodriguez, which is told in the new edge-of-your-seat documentary is the rare tale that’s so improbable and perfect that it doesn’t need even the slightest assistance in mythmaking.
Until now, knowledge of Rodriguez’s career was sort of a litmus test for one’s level of music fanaticism. To know of Rodriguez was to truly be an inner-circle rock nerd. “Searching for Sugar Man” opens the history books. Here’s the short version: The Detroit native, a son of Mexican immigrants, releases two albums of streetwise protest songs in the early 1970s, billed simply as Rodriguez. The lyrics were elegant and graceful, the messages potent. He was supposed to be the next Bob Dylan, but Rodriguez’s albums never cracked the Billboard 200. Career over. There was no fade into obscurity; he never escaped it in the first place.
Yet somehow in the next decade his music made its way to South Africa and struck a chord, particularly with the nation’s liberal, anti-apartheid youth. He eventually became a superstar there on the same level of legends such as Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones. One minor issue — his entire South African fanbase was under the assumption he was dead. Meanwhile, Rodriguez went about his life as a factory worker in Detroit, completely oblivious to his international stardom.
The events leading to Rodriguez’s eventual “resurrection” drive the narrative of “Sugar Man.” It’s a series of mind-boggling events with almost too-good-to-be-true coincidences. The film showed on opening night at the Sundance Film Festival in January, was quickly snatched up by Sony Pictures Classics and went on to win the Audience Award in the World Cinema Documentary category. It opens in wide release on Aug. 3; more than 40 years after American audiences first ignored Rodriguez, they will get a memorable reintroduction.
“I was resistant to it,” Rodriguez says about his initial involvement with the film. “I was reluctant. I was skeptical about the whole thing. I’ve had such an ordinary life.”
Pushing himself back into the spotlight seems at odds with Rodriguez’s personality. He speaks quietly, barely above a whisper. He often pauses, seemingly gathering himself in thought, only to then remain silent. He’s most talkative when the subject is his family (“My daughters are in the film — that’s the highlight for me”) or sociopolitical matters. Somewhat surprisingly, Rodriguez is almost hyper-aware of the business-side specifics of his new career. He knows that “Sugar Man” will be showing in exactly 84 cities, that his “Late Show with David Letterman” appearance is scheduled for Aug. 13, that his song “I Wonder” was Esquire’s song of the month. He mentions meeting celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Sir Bob Geldof and Michael Moore. He also doesn’t seem to mind his new VIP treatment.
“We’ve had the Cadillac SUVs, Lincoln town cars,” he says of recent transportation provided on his recent tour. “Uncle Sony treats us good.”
Coming from a younger artist, this might seem like a galling corporate kiss-up. But being treated with this kind of respect is something new for Rodriguez. The reason he didn’t know of his South African fame was that despite massive album sales, not a single royalty check came his way.
This is one of the mysteries explored by Malik Bendjelloul, the Swedish first-time filmmaker who directed “Sugar Man.” If Rodriguez tends to end his sentences with ellipses, Bendjelloul regularly ends his with exclamation points. The wiry, 34-year-old Stockholm resident started his career making seven-minute mini-documentaries on a variety of subjects for Swedish television but quit that job, packed his camera and traveled the world looking for topics he could explore more deeply. In South Africa he met Stephen Segerman, a record store owner who told him the story of Rodriguez.
“I thought, ‘This is the best story I’ve ever heard!’ It was kind of a fairy tale,” Bendjelloul says. He knew he had a winning subject when he told the story to his friends, who for many years he had used as a sounding board for his mini-doc topics.
“I saw the reaction was very different for this one,” he says. “And it was a long story! Most of the time you say a few sentences and you got a story. This was a lot of sentences! And every 10 seconds, their jaws dropped a little more. Then I was like, ‘Okay, I better work hard on this.’ ”
He started working on the movie full time in 2008, which was when he met Rodriguez on the first of six eventual filming trips to Detroit.
“He was welcoming, I would say. When I came to Detroit his whole family was very welcoming and they were all happy to speak,” Bendjelloul says. “But Rodriguez has this personality . . . he’s always turning his back to the audience [when performing]. So every time the camera came out he was like, ‘You don’t need me. You already have all the others talking about me. I’m not that important in the story.’ ”
In a weird way, Rodriguez is almost right. “Sugar Man” is a rock-and-roll story, but it’s also a comment on the speed and completeness with which information has been globalized. The timing and geography of the story — pre-Internet, in a South Africa largely cut off from the rest of the world — make it unique. This tale couldn’t be repeated today. Someone on Reddit would track down Rodriguez in a few hours, and that wouldn’t have been nearly as inspiring.
“Fate played out in a way that maybe it’s the most beautiful career an artist has ever had,” Bendjelloul says.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez still contends that he’s just a bit player in the documentary. “I’m in the film eight minutes,” he says. That may be technically true, at least in terms of new footage. But it was his songs that set the chain of events in motion, and it will be those same songs that he’ll revisit on an upcoming American tour. (He plays at D.C.’s Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Aug. 30.) He hasn’t released any new music since his 1971 album, “Coming From Reality,” and Rodriguez avoids a direct answer when asked if he still feels connected to those songs.
“Well, I wrote that material. Music is a living art. You re-create it. I almost consider myself a new product,” he says.
Will the reaction be different this time around? If so, chalk it up to people finally catching on, even if it’s 40 years late.
“I was ready for the world,” Rodriguez says of his first career. “I don’t think the world was ready for me.”
Searching for Sugar Man
Opens Aug. 3 at Landmark E Street Cinema, Bethesda Row Cinema and Shirlington 7 Theatres. 85 minutes. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some drug references.