Sixto Rodriguez’ music might have sounded dated even when it was first released in the early 1970s. Many of his songs (“The Establishment Blues,” for instance) show the Dylan influence, especially the Dylan of Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 41 Revisited. One hears Donovan occasionally, and Dion, especially in the song “I Wonder.” One hears also Jose Feliciano, both in how Rodriguez sings and in his guitar playing. One could argue that his music is derivative, but I’d prefer to call it eclectic—it incorporates many influences. Unfortunately, the arrangements are often too commercial, unsuited to his lyrics, with too much echo in his singing, with cheesy beats and violins. His early producers make great claims for his music ability, for his genius, one calling him a prophet, another suggesting he could have been better than Dylan. I don’t buy those claims—they’re all made forty years after the fact by people who want to bask in someone else’s glory, who want to share credit for his musical accomplishments, but who take no blame for his failure. There’s no doubt that Rodriguez is a distinctive, unusual person. And there’s no doubt that his lyrics are often quite good, and perhaps removed now from the milieu of their time his music may be better received. At least in the United States. In South Africa, it’s been well received for decades.
The documentary Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012) divides into two parts. The first half tells us about Rodriguez’ first two albums and his disappearance after their failure. In South Africa, he becomes famous, a super star, but everyone assumes he’s dead, and various legends circulate about the manner of his death, including one that has him committing suicide on stage. We meet the South African record store owner who seeks information about Rodriguez, the musicians influenced by his music, and we learn about the impact of his music on the anti-apartheid movement.
The second half describes the revelation that Rodriguez is still alive in Detroit, working as part of a demolition crew that tears down old buildings. He returns to South Africa, performs four sold-out concerts, and enjoys the success he never had in the United States.
The transition between these two parts comes in a wonderful moment shortly after the music store owner receives an unexpected call at 1:00 in the morning from Rodriguez himself. We stare at a window on a run-down but respectable house somewhere in, as we learn, Detroit. A shadowy figure moves back and forth behind the class and then raises the window, leans out, and looks at the camera. It is Rodriguez. This is a magic moment.
The film considers but never answers the question of who received the royalties for the 500,000 Rodriguez albums sold in South Africa. It hints at an answer, but doesn’t pursue it, and it’s clear Rodriguez never received them. But he does enjoy the proceeds from his concert tours in South Africa, most of which he gives away to family and friends.
There’s a wonderful story here in an engaging film, deftly and warmly told, with suspense, humor, and some awe, with diversely interesting human personalities, at the center of which is Rodriguez himself, a person who, as my wife Patricia commented, seems to have lived a Zen-like existence, impervious to his early failure, content to work in demolition for thirty years, unfazed by his unsuccessful campaigns for office in Detroit (including his candidacy for mayor), equally content to discover that in South Africa he is famous. We watched the film twice.
For those of us who lived through the 60s and 70s, there’s nostalgia in the film too, which is in that respect about memory, about past and present, about what was and what might have been.