Searching for Sugar Man was the only one of the five documentary feature nominees in 2013 that was uplifting and didn’t deal with an important social or political issue that needs correcting. And yet it does start with such a struggle…the fight to end apartheid in South Africa. For white South Africans who opposed the racist policies of their government in the 1970s, part of the soundtrack to their lives was the album “Cold Fact” featuring a mysterious American singer named Rodriguez. It sold more copies in South Africa than the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.”
Apartheid finally ended in 1994. Meanwhile, rumors spread that Rodriguez had committed suicide, perhaps even by setting himself on fire onstage. In 1996, Rodriguez fan Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom began the hunt to find out how Rodriguez really died.
Thousands of miles away, in Detroit, Rodriguez’s albums were well-reviewed, and Rodriguez was pitched—with good reason—as a Mexican-American Bob Dylan. Perhaps if Rodriguez had lived in California or Arizona he might have built a significant following. However, the market for politically conscious music by a Latino singer-songwriter in Detroit was limited, and Rodriguez’s albums did not sell. He returned to a normal life as a construction worker, completely oblivious to his hero status in South Africa.
What follows in director Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary, which he began working on in 2006, is really an irresistible story. Suffice it say that, thanks to a new tool known as the internet, Segerman and Bartholomew-Strydom discovered that Rodriguez—Sixto Rodriguez—was actually still alive and, as a bonus, was a nice guy, a mensch, and even better, had retained his singing abilities.
I was stationed in the press room at the Academy Awards the night that Searching for Sugar Man won the Oscar. Naturally, one of the first questions to Malik Bendjelloul was why Rodriguez wasn’t there. Bendjelloul told us that he had tried to persuade Rodriguez to come, but he had declined on the grounds that the award was for the film, and it was Bendjelloul’s film. Unfortunately, Bendjelloul suffered from depression and committed suicide just fifteen months later.
Thanks to my son, Elijah Wallechinsky, I was able to see Rodriguez perform live in Los Angeles. I spoke with South African audience members who could barely believe that they had finally gotten to see Rodriguez in person. For them, it was a dream come true. At the same time, I was sitting next to a Mexican-American man and his nine-year-old daughter. I asked the man why they had come. He told me that his daughter had heard Rodriguez’s music and become a fan, even though she was unaware of his back story.
For anyone who might find Rodriguez’s story too good to be true, keep in mind the odyssey of the blues singer Mississippi John Hurt. Born in 1893, Hurt lived in the tiny community of Avalon, Mississippi, playing guitar and singing at local dances. When he was 35 years old, he attracted the attention of a record company that brought him to Memphis and New York to record a few 45s. None of them sold well, so he returned to Avalon and the local dances. Thirty-five years later, two musicologists, Tom Hoskins and Mike Stewart, came across one of Hurt’s 1928 recordings and were so moved that they tracked him down in Avalon. At 70, Hurt still had the same clear voice and smooth guitar skills he had had as a younger man. They taped him singing and playing, and Hurt quickly became nationally appreciated. He spent the remaining three years of his life performing at music festivals, on college campuses and even on television. Rodriguez’s 20-25 years of obscurity seem like a brief interlude in comparison with those of John Hurt.