[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 Tribeca Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the wider theatrical release of the film.]
The old joke about obscure musicians is that they're big in Japan. Rodriguez was a no-hit wonder who released only two albums. They got good reviews but no one cared; his music -- think Bob Dylan by way of the Detroit sound -- was ahead of its time and hence forgotten in its time.
Legend had it that Rodriguez died during a bad show. He either OD'd during a song, shot himself between numbers, or drenched himself in gas and self-immolated on stage. It's the stuff of obscure rock and roll mythology; too unreal to be true, but it fit the persona of this shadowy figure who was brilliant and ignored. What better way to go out if you're a musician?
The thing is, the rock and roll legends aren't always true, even for people so obscure they aren't even big in Japan. Rodriguez was big in South Africa. As director Malik Bendjelloul mentioned in our interview yesterday, this was the great story he'd been looking for. Enter Searching for Sugar Man.
Searching for Sugar Man
It's the whole improbability of it all: a Detroit guy who can't sell a record to save his life winds up being a cultural icon for anti-Apartheid Afrikaners. A lot of this was thanks to bootlegs, but he went on to sell hundreds of thousands for records in South Africa, and he never even realized it. He became their icon for anti-establishment sentiment and freedom in the West. At one point in the film, Rodriguez's Cold Fact is said to have been as common in Afrikaner households as Abbey Road and Bridge Over Troubled Water. Meanwhile, stateside, it's jokingly said that his albums sold about six copies.
Bendjelloul does his best to stay out of the way of the story, allowing it to unfold on its own. It's a smart choice given how compelling Rodriguez's life is. This is a film in service to the story, not the other way around. There are little stylistic choices that Bendjelloul makes that help enhance the myth of Rodriguez, however. There are bits of animation and illustration in the film to help recreate old Detroit. It also helps contribute to that story of Rodriguez being discovered: two record producers walk through the fog into a smoky bar to watch a man with his back turned to the audience.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, Rodriguez was paving the road for his own legend. His look was so distinct -- the dark sunglasses, the jet black hair, the stance, the swagger. It's as if he was made up of shadows, smoke, and fog; that, with so few pictures available, he could only be sketched out from the memories of the select few who had seen him, and most who'd seen him probably ignored him anyway. Like the lines from one of his songs: "But thanks for your time / Then you can thank me for mine / And after that's said / Forget it."
There's a good portrait of fandom painted in the film, particularly in regards to musicologists curious about Rodriguez. They look for any information available, they scour lyrics for locations and the chance of deciphering distinct shapes in the fog of Rodriguez's life. We eventually come to Rodriguez himself. (It's not a spoiler that he's alive. You can find that info on his Wikipedia page pretty easily.) While you might expect grandiosity and eccentricity, or maybe even the bitterness of a forgotten genius, what we get instead is a man who is entirely himself without a trace of artifice.
What's great about Searching for Sugar Man is that it explores the myth of Rodriguez and the man himself while leaving both intact. The myth lives because it's one of the most interesting parts of his persona as an artist. The man is interviewed respectfully, so much so that he gets to remain a private person. He is revealed but not exposed, and what we learn about Rodriguez is touching and remarkable.
Struggling artists often persist in the face of failure to a point of self-destruction. It can be admirable, it's the stuff of great stories, but it's also the stuff of great heartbreak and tragedy. Rather than struggle endlessly, Rodriguez went another route. It's not what you'd expect, but it's a perfect expression of who he is and what he believes in. Like the myth and the man remaining intact by the end of the film, Rodriguez keeps his artistic integrity and maintains his personal integrity.
I mentioned in yesterday's interview with Bendjelloul that I got to see Rodriguez play an acoustic solo set. He played a lot of his biggies, including "Sugar Man" and "Crucify Your Mind," and he also did covers of a Midnight Oil song, "Fever" (he made it sound a little like Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus" by way of Chris Isaak), and "La Vie en rose." In his soft voice, he said he was definitely going to play that last song in France some time in the near future.
To see the film and to see Rodriguez in the flesh, I wondered why what I was hearing had been so ignored, and how many other brilliant things have been obscured or forgotten. On stage, Rodriguez seemed happy, but in a way free from ego. He just seemed happy to be playing, glad to be working. That comes through in the movie, and yet he still remains something of a mystery.
"You want to know the secret to life?" Rodriguez asked the crowd. After a pause, "You have to just keep breathing. In and out."
Everyone laughed and he smiled and nodded. He leaned into the mic again.
"You want to know the mystery to life?" A pause. "You never know when it will end."