Two documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival turned their focus on American singer-songwriters making an impact on different eras of apartheid-stricken South Africa. But one major difference between the Paul Simon “Graceland” doc “Under African Skies” and Malik Bendjelloul's directorial debut “Searching for Sugar Man” are the artists’ awareness of their influence on that African country. Simon lived it. Obscure folk artist Rodriguez had no idea what the hell was going on.
Sixto Rodriguez put out two albums under his last name in 1970 and 1971 via Sussex/A&M. They failed to sell here in the ‘States. Through several interviews with recording engineers and label executives that “discovered” him in dingy nightclubs in Detroit, there was a feeling of disbelief that an artist so talented went unrewarded in his lifetime.
That is, a tortured artist. For half the film, the viewer is primed to believe that Sixto Rodriguez is dead. Rumor had it he set himself on fire at a show or maybe even overdosed, unable to carry on after such commercial failure. This results in lofty declarations from those who knew his music best, like one producer describing one track as “the saddest song I ever heard” or South African record retailer Stephen “Sugar” Segerman to call his death one of the most tragic “in rock and roll history.”
Those Dylan-esque records “Cold Fact” and “Coming From Reality” found new life in South Africa throughout the ‘70s, after Rodriguez’ working-class poetry struck a chord with South African people. The records were passed around, copied, and songs became anthems for army men and activist, particularly white listeners sympathetic to the anti-apartheid movement. The government even banned his music; it went on to sell more than 500,000 copies, a huge number for a presumably dead American artist in mid-sized foreign country, making him “bigger than Elvis” there.
Segerman and fellow South Afrikaan Craig Bartholemew’s enthusiasm and curiosity of Rodriguez’ mysterious legacy gives way to Bendjelloul’s extra-slow unveiling of the film’s payoff. Rodriguez does, eventually learn of his astronomic popularity in South Africa, though not because of any of Sussex/A&M’s doing, not because of any fat royalty checks. This lifetime hard laborer and gentle soul re-enters the living world because of the Internet. Of course.
It’s the kind of enchanting story you couldn’t make up, though all the archetypes are there: music industry mismanagement, fan fiction, revolution, Detroit decay, the essence of rock and roll and redemption, old men made young again.
Bendjelloul could benefit from just getting out of the way of this extraordinary real-life tale. It sells itself. Animated interstitials show up just to show off; his score is sloppily abrasive against the Rodriguez’ finger-picking folk songs; the fever pitch of Rodriguez return -- the crux of the movie -- could have benefitted more from showing (footage) rather than telling (interviews).
But also offers a twist on the evergreen fable of the Shady Record Deal. After spending most of the movie on old white dudes spinning their wheels in front of their shiny gold records, and white South Africans expressing their love of this obscure Mexican-American artist, there’s the heated back-and-forth with former Motown Records chairman and now-defunct Sussex label founder Clarence Avant, who is black. It was alluded that he, of all people, would seem to be the ground zero of all knowledge on Rodriguez’ overseas sales success. And he of all people refused to put a number on what Rodriguez is owed. It was a jilting, small instance of a major label system taking advantage of minority songwriters, even if it’s by other minorities.
“Searching for Sugar Man” premiered on the first night of the festival and was almost immediately picked up by Sony Pictures Classics
, which may mean Rodriguez’ extraordinary story may go wide in the U.S., even if his music still doesn’t.