movies: Mystery Man’s story finally revealed............
RODRIGUEZ was a young folk singer in Detroit, in the US, in the late 1960s. There were a lot of them then. However, there was something about this guy, his Bob Dylan-esque voice and haunting lyrics, that made local producers sit up and take notice. One of them got him a record deal. In 1970, Rodriguez released his debut album, Cold Fact. How many copies did he sell? ‘‘Six,’’ one industry insider says flatly. ‘‘Nobody was interested in listening to him,’’ laments another.
One of those copies was carried over to South Africa, where it was bootlegged and, for some reason, became as wildly popular there – and later, in Australia and New Zealand – as it was obscure in the US.
Cold Fact sold an estimated half a million copies. Only nobody ever told Rodriguez.
This is all you need to – all you really should – know before seeing Searching For Sugar Man, a terrific documentary about a decades-long search, by two South African Rodriguez fans, for the story behind their enigmatic pop idol.
Bigger than Elvis, they say, he provided the anthems for a generation of anti-apartheid protests – and yet, legend has it, despondently torched himself on stage one tragic night. Or did he?
Director Malik Bendjelloul expertly paces this strange and moving film, half mystery and half meditation on art, fame, the music biz and the definition of a meaningful life.
Some questions are left frustratingly unanswered, though: How, even in the pre-internet Stone Age, a recording artist could be so cut off from contact with and, more significantly, royalties from an entire country?
Sussex Records founder Clarence Avant, ostensibly responsible for the latter, gives the film’s most menacing interview, neatly sweeping the issue aside while getting misty about Rodriguez’s inability to hit it big at home in the US.
Interwoven through the film, set to wintry streetscapes in Detroit and historic footage of South African protests, are songs by the artist, who sounds so like some of the biggest names of his era it’s baffling so many people never heard of him.
Some say Rodriguez’s comeback could now include a trip to the Oscars.
It certainly includes an Australian tour and a return trip to the Byron Bay Bluesfest next year.
Searching For Sugar Man opens today. Rodriguez, backed by Aussie surf rockers The Break, plays Byron Bay Bluesfest, at Tyagarah, from March 28 to April 1, and The Tivoli, in Brisbane, on April 1.
US singer Rodriguez, subject of the riveting documentary