“Searching For Sugar Man”
This documentary answers questions nobody was asking, but then raises more that no one can answer. And it’s done in such a charming way that you become interested despite yourself.
The questions nobody was asking? “Who is Rodriguez?” “What music did he record?” “What concerts did he perform?” “Where is he now?”
As it turns out, Rodriguez was this obscure singer/songwriter from urban Detroit, who used a kind of minimalist musical arrangement: mostly just him strumming chords, maybe a little drum, maybe the occasional add-your-own harmony. Just enough musical ability to raise it beyond the level of average garage band, but certainly nothing remarkable. The songs were about living in a time when there was oppression and poverty and racial tension all around, and a little bit about lost love. The albums did next to nothing in U.S. sales (who could compete with the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and all of Motown?) and the quiet man quickly faded into musical obscurity. Who knew that a bootleg copy would find its way all the way to South Africa during the height of the Apartheid confrontation? And who knew that the local protest musicians, using Rodriguez’ music, would then elevate him to the level of cultural icon?
In these days of instant international communication, it’s difficult to imagine how little knowledge passed over the oceans in this instance. Nobody in South Africa seemed to know how to contact this Rodriguez, and apparently nobody really tried very hard. The rumor persisted that he killed himself on stage during a concert. But after the political situation there had settled down (after 1996), and peacetime ventures could be contemplated, and the internet was truly worldwide, a couple of music producers there decided to do a little sleuthing, and what they discovered amazed even them. They set up a website asking if anybody knew anything about this Rodriguez, and heard back from one of his grown daughters! She posts a blog on their website, informing them that her father, Sixto Rodriguez, is actually still alive and well, working construction in urban Detroit, and living in the same house for the last 40 years. These men were so astounded to discover this that they immediately go meet the mysterious man, and ask him about coming to South Africa to do a few concerts. Since no one had expressed any interest in his music since the 1960’s, he was happy to oblige.
And there’s the next mystery, about the character of Sixto Rodriguez himself. All those years later, he could apparently still sing his old songs on his guitar, but had not been active as a performing musician during any of that time. He’d not received any royalties, and was apparently not aware that he was such a legend in South Africa. (All attempts to track where the money might have gone, not surprisingly, prove to be fruitless.) He’d only done a couple of live concerts in his life, back when he was much younger, but he readily agreed to perform onstage in South Africa, where he was met with thousands of adoring fans who knew all the words to his old songs. He was completely stunned. And yet, he appears to receive all these accolades quietly, graciously, perhaps even a little ironically, as if he is aware of the absurdity of it all, and is amused by it, but doesn’t take it too seriously. In fact, by all accounts, after several rousing and well-received concerts in South Africa, he returns to Detroit and goes back to work with his old construction crew. They interview a bricklayer who expresses amazement that this is even the same man. We’re still a little astounded ourselves. We’re told that Mr. Rodriguez has given away most of the concert money. Though we see his grown daughters, we are not told anything about their mother(s), or anything about any current family situation. We just have this long-haired, skinny, enigmatic, singer/songwriter guy, almost always wearing sunglasses. He’s smiling, but we can’t see his eyes, and we still aren’t sure who he is, and he’s still shrouded in mystery, and now we realize that’s the way he likes it.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas