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Believe it or not, I know what it’s like to be searching for Sugar Man. On the day that I was originally supposed to interview Sixto Rodriguez, the titular subject of Malik Bendjelloul‘s remarkable best documentary feature Oscar nominee Searching for Sugar Man (which chronicles the search for a musician who never knew he was famous halfway across the world), neither the publicist working on the film nor I could locate him. We later learned that the 70-year-old, who had flown from Detroit into Los Angeles for a short trip, had taken his girlfriend to the hospital for what was ultimately diagnosed as exhaustion. When I finally connected with the two of them the next day, both were in good spirits, though clearly drained from the travels and adventures of a year that neither of them — nor anyone else — could have possibly seen coming.
As Searching for Sugar Man recounts, Rodriguez was, in the early 1970s, a singer whom several music industry executives felt was as talented as anyone they’d ever encountered; several likened his distinctive voice and poetic lyrics to those of Bob Dylan, which is no small compliment. He was signed to a record deal but, to their dismay, his first two albums, Coming from Reality and Cold Fact, completely flopped, selling only a handful of copies. Not long thereafter, he dropped out of the music biz and off of their radar altogether. Meanwhile, halfway across the world, bootleg copies of his albums made their way into South Africa and became the soundtrack of the anti-Apartheid movement. To South Africans, though, the man behind the voice was a complete mystery, and rumors began spreading that he had died the most sensational of deaths. It was only through the relentless efforts of two of South Africa’s most hardcore Rodriguez fans, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom (who are prominently featured in the film), that South Africans learned the real story of what happened to Rodriguez — and Rodriguez learned the real story of what happened in South Africa.
Rodriguez was born July 10, 1942, in Detroit to parents who were born in Mexico. Raised in a Spanish-speaking home that was filled with instruments, he discovered his passion for music at a young age. “I’ve been chasing music since I was 16,” he says. The instrument to which he gravitated most was the guitar. “To me, the guitar itself has been at the center of the music ensemble for the last 40 years, at least, you know, in rock,” he says. “I appreciate what comes out of it. And it’s all in there, you know, all the different styles of music.” Rodriguez also realized that he could make statements through song. “I loved the Woody Guthrie tradition of speaking about what’s happening to the country,” he recalls.
As he entered his 20s and 30s, Rodriguez began working odd-jobs while performing music on the side, but always regarded himself as a musician. He laughs, “Musicians do music for the girls. We do music for the money. We do music for the recognition, for the rock and roll history. But we also do it because it’s fun,” he says. “It has a lot of value, I feel.” His ultimate dream at the time? “I was going to get picked up by a label, of course.” That happened in the early 1970s, but when the albums tanked he was left with some thinking to do. “At some point,” he says, “you have to make decisions,” and he decided to call it a day and focus on other things. “I gave it up after ’74, thinking it was not going anywhere.” He sighs and then laughs, “I was too disappointed to be disappointed.”
Rodriguez “dropped out of the music scene, but not out of music,” continuing to make it for pleasure during his free time, but making a living by working in demolition. “What I do,” he explains, “is take the walls and the ceilings and floors and the wiring and everything out, and prepare it for the carpenters and the plumbers and the electricians and the, you know, fine-tuning.” (Something that is not touched upon in Searching for Sugar Man, probably because it conflicts with the narrative that Rodriguez completely dropped off the music scene, is the fact that he did make two extensive tours of Australia in 1979 and 1981, due to the popular demand of Australians who had, like South Africans, obtained and embraced bootleg copies of his albums.)
The defiant and risque lyrics of Rodriguez’s music — particularly songs like “I Wonder” and “Sugar Man” — resonated strongly with South Africans in the 1970s, as they were just beginning to push back against their oppressive government, which had already caused them to be cut off from the rest of the world. Rodriguez obviously did not have South African politics in mind when he wrote the tunes; in fact, he says, he wasn’t any more familiar or connected with South Africa than most other Americans until long after he lost his record deal. “I knew about the boycott and I knew about the economic sanctions to South Africa, but that’s about it. I knew about [slain anti-Apartheid activist Stephen] Biko and I knew about Soweto [the township where protests by high school students in 1976 ended with 176 people killed by the police]. But I didn’t know the depth of the government repression.”
Then, in 1996, during the early days of the Internet, one of Rodriguez’s three daughters, Eva, came across a website set up by Segerman, who was seeking information about what had become of Rodriguez. She contacted him via the site’s message board, notified him that her father was alive and well, and, within hours, connected the two by phone. Shortly thereafter, Segerman visited Rodriguez at his home in Detroit. Rodriguez recalls, “He came, and showed me the [bootlegged] CD, and described this fanbase I had.” Could he believe it? “Seeing is believing, you know?” he laughs. Two years later, in 1998, he and his daughters flew to South Africa, where he was greeted like, well, a rock star. “I toured to 5,000-seaters and sold out these places,” he says. “It blew my mind.” South Africa and South Africans impressed him greatly during that visit and the many return trips that he has made to perform there, most recently this week. (He performed in Johannesburg last night and will perform in Cape Town on Wednesday night before returning to Los Angeles to attend the Oscars on Feb. 24.) “It’s a beautiful country with gorgeous people and we were so well-treated.”
Of course, most Americans would still not know Rodriguez’s story if not for Bendjelloul, a 35-year-old child actor-turned-TV director who decided to take a backpacking trip across Africa several years ago, during which he first heard Rodriguez’s story and decided to make it the subject of his first feature film, with or without the cooperation of the man himself. In February 2008, with the assistance of Segerman, Bendjelloul got in touch with Rodriguez, who agreed to be interviewed in Detroit. “I was skeptical at the beginning,” Rodriguez recalls. But he was ultimately won over by the young filmmaker’s enthusiasm. The resulting film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012, where it was greeted with a lengthy standing ovation — thanks in no small part to the attendance of Rodriguez, who was introduced as the film came to an end. Its domestic distribution rights were quickly snapped up by Sony Pictures Classics, and it ended up becoming one of the year’s most critically and commercially successful documentaries. “There’s a sense of magic in the story,” even Rodriguez must admit.
Today, he says, he’s “a solid 70,” but as busy as ever. “I have about a dozen bands around the globe,” Rodriguez says, “you know, South African bands, Australian bands, English bands, West Coast California bands,” with whom he plays when he visits their respective locales. He’s enjoying the sort of success that he once dreamed of, and then gave up on ever achieving. In short, his career trajectory is unlike any other on record. “I’m a fortunate man, quite fortunate,” Rodriguez says. “It’s happened. It’s pretty amazing.”
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