Who is, or was, Sixto Diaz Rodriguez? A lifelong resident of Detroit, and the son of Mexican immigrants who moved to the Midwest to work for Ford. A “prophet, “a wise man”, and a “wandering spirit” in the eyes of his coworkers on construction crews. A social activist who ran for office in his hometown, and who brought his five daughters to protests. A man of modest means who lives an ascetic life.
For a brief period in the 1970s, Rodriguez was a solo artist who released two remarkable albums—Cold Fact and Coming From Reality—that reached an audience so small, the cliché “cult hero” would overestimate it. While the albums sold an estimated six copies in America and quickly lapsed out of print, Cold Fact made it to South Africa not long after it came out here. Rodriguez’s anti-establishment lyrics, combined with his driving melodies and funky arrangements, made him a folk hero to South Africans bristling under apartheid. That Rodriguez was rumored to have committed a grisly suicide before a live audience only deepened his legend.
When Coming From Reality finally saw release in South Africa in the mid 1990s, Rodriguez super-fan Stephen Segerman mentioned in the liner notes that little was known of the singer’s life and presumed death, and posed the question “Does anyone know what really happened to Rodriguez?” This rhetorical inquiry piqued the interest of music journalist Craig Bartholomew, and the pair joined forces to learn of Rodriguez’ fate.
Director Malik Bendjelloul stages Searching For Sugar Man in the style of a mystery. Interview subjects play up Rodriguez’ enigmatic qualities. The story of how he was discovered—in a shadowy nightclub on the outskirts of Detroit—evokes Sherlock Holmes. Bartholomew points out that the dead ends and shady characters surrounding the release of Cold Fact play out like a classic whodunit. Rodriguez’ eventual appearance in the film elevates him into a kind of rock and roll Harry Lime.
Admittedly, I had been curious about Rodriguez’ origins, the inspirations for his songwriting, and how he recorded the albums. (The orchestral arrangements on Cold Fact give the songs a great tension, and I would have loved to learn about how he ended up working with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.) For good and for ill, however, the film depicts the experiences of fans who seek inspiration from other artists, and who want to know more about their artistic heroes.
Bendjelloul’s film ably balances technical prowess with a home-grown, scrapbook-like feel. DP Camilla Skagerström gives the digital video footage a warm look and a lovely, green-infused color scheme. The editing, particularly in the first two-thirds of the film, will keep even Rodriguez’ early adopters on the edges of their seats. A few animated sequences work as wonderful transitions between the singer’s many milieus and might make one hope for a Persepolis-esque biopic of his life.
Fans of 1970s folk rock and of underrated artists would do well to check out Searching for Sugar Man. Those curious about an unknown musician and fans of a good mystery would do well to spend some time with the Sugar Man, too.
Searching For Sugar Man is currently in wide release.