By Chuck Cox
Ever since I heard the story behind the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” I’ve been dying to see the film.
The unbelievable tale of Detroit musician Rodriguez was released on DVD on Tuesday. And it was really fantastic. Director Malik Bendjelloul did a first-rate job putting all of the pieces together to make the movie as visually and technically appealing as the story itself is riveting.
If you haven’t heard about it, “Searching for Sugar Man” is about how Rodriguez’s music became legendary in South Africa, completely unbeknownst to him. Rodriguez released a pair of albums — Cold Fact (1970) and Coming From Reality (1971) at the beginning of his career. Perhaps the most difficult thing to fathom about the whole story is how these two albums did not absolutely explode in the United States. In fact, they completely flopped. The music and lyrics are second to none. They are gritty, honest, and real. And just like the music executives and producers interviewed in the film, I’m bewildered as to how Rodriguez was not held in the same esteem as Bob Dylan back in those days. Do yourself a favor and grab those two albums. They are phenomenal.
Meanwhile, in South Africa, music was censored while the country battled apartheid. So much so that vinyl was actually scratched intentionally on Rodriguez records so it could not be played. Despite that, Rodriguez’s music made its way into the ears of people all over the country. And the anti-establishment tone of some of his songs resonated with what they were dealing with at the time. So much so that they estimated in the film Rodriguez had sold at least a half-million albums in the country. The story also got around South Africa that Rodriguez had committed suicide on stage. But after some diligent investigation by a local journalist, he found out the singer was alive and well in Motown.
The climax of the movie is Rodriguez playing to a delirious audience in South Africa in 1998. We find out just how quiet and assuming of a guy Rodriguez is when he’s interviewed on camera. For him to see people finally giving his music the kind of reaction it should have had all along must have been an amazing feeling. It was the first of six sold-out concerts he played there in what had to have been surreal beyond belief.
The movie has also led to a resurgence in Rodriguez’s career. He has been performing shows all over the U.S. and South Africa since last year. I missed his show in Dallas, but I definitely will go see him at some point. If you are a music fan at all, you need to check this film out. It’s tremendous.