Searching for Sugar Man: The Musical Mystery of Rodriguez

Christine Connallon By

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Searching for Sugar Man Rodriguez

Searching for Sugar Man

Sony Pictures Classics


Sometimes truth is indeed more fascinating than fiction. A perfect example is the story of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, a quietly powerful musician whose politically charged songs rivaled those of Bob Dylan in a similar era but who fell into the abyss after his early work tanked in the United States. It took a bootleg of an early album being brought into a country brimming with its own political strife half a world away to spread his message and talent, unbeknownst to Rodriguez. This whirlwind takes on a life of its own, culminating in a compelling documentary that has made the festival circuit and is set for release in theaters this summer, a soundtrack from the Sony Legacy label and numerous appearances on a worldwide tour.

Playing small dives in the Motor City of Detroit in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rodriguez, as he was known, was an enigma. Full of political statements and thoughtful lyrics, he strummed a guitar at venues like Sewer on the Sea with his back to the audience. Bursting with quiet charisma, thoughtful phrases and uber talent, Rodriguez bowled over record label execs who had high hopes for his work: Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971). He remained a puzzle to locals who thought that this handsome drifter might be a homeless person, as he always seemed to appear and vanish. Even label reps were never invited to meet him at his house, but always on a different gritty street corner of Detroit. Coming From Reality was released in November 1971 and in truly prophetic form, the first line from Rodriguez's song "Cause" seemed to predict what befell him next: "Cause I lost my job two weeks before Christmas..." Two weeks before Christmas of 1971, Rodriguez was dropped by his record label and seemed to just fade into the woodwork, without fanfare.

In South Africa, during the height of oppression and apartheid, a copy of Rodriguez's Cold Fact made its way into the culture, hitting a cult status fervor. It hit a nerve with the youth who were struck by his songs like "This is Not a Song: It's an Outburst: Or the Establishment Blues." Becoming an anthem for people who had begun to rebel, in a culture where television and radio were stringently controlled by the government and where musicians were not allowed to play concerts, Rodriguez became as big to South Africans as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The radio stations were so strictly watched by the government that when it deemed a song not fit to be played on air, the word "AVOID" was not only stamped on the album cover next to the track listing but to ensure that it would never be played, a sharp object was used to physically scratch that track out on the actual album so it could not be played. Songs like Rodriguez's "I Wonder," which features the lyrics "I wonder how many times you had sex," was censored and not deemed possible to go on air in a society and time when things like sex was not openly discussed. His song "Sugar Man" refers to various drugs. This sort of banning incited even more musicians and young people to listen to Rodriguez and spread the word among friends. His albums became a staple in most houses, next to the family turntable.

As much as the citizens of South Africa loved Rodriguez, they were hard pressed to find out any information about him. Urban myths about gruesome onstage suicides back in the States were prevalent and ranged from him finishing up a bad set and shooting himself in the head, to going out in a blaze of glory after dousing himself with gasoline on stage. Researching him was futile until a record store owner and a music journalist teamed up, sharing their own search info with one another, turning up lots of dead ends and closed doors. When a website created in search of Rodriguez happened to draw the attention of Rodriguez's daughter, the next chapter was revealed, bringing the now 70 year old Rodriguez the recognition that had eluded him all those decades.

"Searching for Sugar Man," directed by Malik Bendejelloul, a Stockholm-based director, producer and editor who has worked on many music-based documentaries, is the riveting story of the humble beginnings of Rodriguez's career and amazing journey that two fans took to find him. The use of Rodriguez's music in the film is poignant and a beautiful showcase to his timeless talent. Sony Classics worked with Sony's Legacy Recordings to put out the soundtrack in a highly unusual deal, involving more people than is the norm. Rodriguez's music was completely unavailable in the U.S. until 2008, when the small Seattle label Light in the Attic Records re-released Cold Fact under a licensing pact with Clarence Avant, who founded Sussex Records and who owns Rodriguez's catalog. The end result of this collaboration behind the scenes produced a 14 track CD that encapsulates the best of Rodriguez's earlier two albums. Fans around the U.S. can enjoy Rodriguez when he is featured in August on "The Late Show With David Letterman."

As for Rodriguez, he seems to be quietly enjoying his newly celebrated fame with performances to enthusiastic audiences. Recently, he appeared at the prestigious New York Times Center in New York City for a special screening, discussion and performance, in collaboration with the Sundance Institute and joined on stage by the film's director Bendejelloul. Received by a standing ovation from a crowd clearly moved by the film, Rodriguez exudes a Zen vibe and discusses the philosophy degree that took him ten years to complete. He doesn't seem to harbor any ill will about the royalties that were paid but never made their way to him. In fact, he has given away much of the money he has made since being brought back into the spotlight to family and friends, opting to keep his very basic, simple lifestyle. Fame has obviously not changed him and the joy on his face when he performs "Like Janis" is evident. He explains that the song was about a girl he knew named Janis, whose kisses "tasted like tobacco, which isn't always a bad thing." He seemed to blush at the memory, a gentleman from an era gone by.

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