In the days of one hit wonders and X-Factor competitions on TV, we’re used to disposable music stars that come and go on an almost weekly basis. Before this, record companies invested a lot of time and money in the musicians they thought long and hard about how far they would carry someone who wasn’t making them money. One such musician was a quiet but fantastic songwriter called Sixto Rodriguez.
In the early 1970s Detroit based folk singer Sixto Rodriguez was received incredibly well by critics and music professionals, so much so they invested in him enough to record two albums. He was hailed as being better, grittier and more real than Dylan. They said he really did tell it how it was; Dylan was soft compared to Rodriquez. For some reason though the music buying public either didn’t agree or they weren’t ready and so, in a manner that fitted his lyrics almost perfectly, he was dropped by his label.
Disappointed but not letting ‘the man’ get him down, Rodriguez, got on with his life. He threw himself into working for his community, raising a family and forgot about his ever so slight chance of fame.
Meanwhile thousands of miles away in South Africa, someone, somewhere started playing Rodriguez’s records. The lyrics struck a chord with those that were listening. At the time South Africa was being shunned by the rest of the world as its ruling government continued to enforce apartheid. Daily protests would often lead to violent clashes with police and militia as those opposed to the racist oppression fought to secure equal rights for all.
Rodrigeuz somehow encouraged them. His lyrics told them to fight harder, to not let oppression win the day, to stand up for what they believed in. With so much of the music coming into South Africa censored, recordings of his records spread like wildfire on the secret black market and soon some of his ‘government approved’ songs were being played on the radio. All the while, back in Detroit, or anyone outside of South Africa really, had no idea what was happening.
As we know, South Africa did manage to start pulling itself out of a dark time. Nelson Mandela was released from prison, free and open elections were held and official apartheid was no more. Yet Rodriguez still continued to touch the people of South Africa. His lyrics and music was passed to younger generations, children would sing his songs in their games, music lovers, musicians and music shop owners would spend many nights discussing the legend of Rodriguez over a drink or two. But, they knew nothing about him because there were no magazine articles about him, no TV appearances and no tours. Despite being bigger than Elvis, no one had any idea who he was. No one realised it was because his record label had dropped him and so there was no promotional plan to push sales of his records. So rumours and conspiracy theories started, it must be because early on in his career Rodriguez had died.
You have to remember that this was still only the 90s. There was no internet so trying to find out about someone, especially if they lived in another country, was almost impossible.
But despite this some dedicated fans and journalists tried to find out what happened to the man that they believe helped save their country. Which story depicting his death was true? What kind of man was he? Where did he live and why were there no articles about him in music magazines like other music stars?
Director Malik Bendjelloul takes the audience on the quest ‘searching for Sugar Man’. We get to see the story behind his fame, the way he touched so many people, record producers grilled about what happened to Rodriguez’s money and we also get to witness the unraveling of a bizarre story that really will blow you away.
There’s a famous saying about the best stories always being true, Searching for Sugar Man is one of those stories, expertly told and so incredible you might just not believe it.