Monday, September 10, 2012

Who is Rodriguez?

I saw an amazing story at the Landmark Embarcadero Cinemas in the form of a documentary.

Searching for Sugar Man; documentary; directed by Malik Bendjelloul; (2012) - Official Website

Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of the musician known as Rodriguez, aka Sixto Rodriguez, aka Jesus Rodriguez.  The Detroit based Rodriguez released two albums in the early 1970s; neither of which sold well.  After that, he faded away to obscurity although rumors circulated that he committed suicide while performing on stage.  Unbeknownst to him and almost everyone in the US, Rodriguez's albums became best sellers in South Africa.  At the time, South Africa was isolated from the rest of the world in response to their policy of apartheid.  Against this backdrop, Rodriguez's Dylanesque songs became anthems for anti-apartheid and anti-government groups of primarily young, white people (presumably not Afrikaners).  His voice even sounded a little like Bob Dylan circa Lay Lady Lay.

Generations of South Africans listened to Rodriguez's music without him receiving royalties due to a shady record producer.  Convinced he was dead, his fans treated him more like a legend than a singer until two of his South African fans decided to research his death.  Record store owner and Rodriguez expert Stephen 'Sugar' Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom set out to untangle fact from fiction in the mysterious life and death of Rodriguez.

What they discovered was that Rodriguez was not dead at all.  He was alive and working construction in Detroit.  He had given up music to make a living and support his daughters (two or three, I can't recall).  No mention was made of their mother(s).  After word of his existence spread, Rodriguez was brought to the RSA in 1998 for a series of sold-out concerts.  Since then, Rodriguez has returned periodically to South Africa for concerts...each time returning to hs construction job in Detroit. 

As improbable and uplifting as Rodriguez's life story is, I thought the movie was uneven.  Despite being a trim 86 minutes, the film lost my interest at times.  Yet at other times, I was almost moved to tears.  Rodriguez himself is an enigmatic person which hampers the narrative thread of the film.  Modest, inscrutable and self-effacing, the audience doesn't really get a sense of where the man's songwriting talents and inspirations came from.  He dismisses his years in the wilderness with admirable aplomb.  In short, Rodriguez seems like a man to admire but not necessarily a good man to build a documentary around.  As a result, we are left with virtual strangers, adoring fans and Rodriguez's daughters to speak for him.  The story they tell is quite fascinating but I kept wanting to hear more from the man himself.

When younger, Rodriguez looked like he had the Roy Orbison thing going on.  As he let his hair grow out, Rodriguez bore a distinct resemblance to Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker.  Speaking infrequently and constantly wearing dark sunglasses, Rodriguez continues to cultivate an air of mystery which is oddly incongruous with his songs.

As for the title, it refers to Rodriguez's signature song - Sugar Man.  Segerman self-selected the nickname Sugar because of his appreciation of Rodriguez's music and the similarities between his surname and Rodriguez's song.

Rodriguez's music has been re-released.  You can download his songs from his website although I cannot vouch for the site and am always suspicious of malware when I'm offered "free" downloads.  His songs can also be purchased on Amazon and iTunes.  Visit his other website for his tour dates.  He'll be at Bimbo's in San Francisco on September 29. 

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