If you’re like me, you’re like the majority of people in this world and you’ve never heard of Rodriguez, a Detroit songwriter of the early 1970s who strummed his guitar with wicked dexterity and sung his lyrics with a hauntingly resonant voice. All I knew about him is what this movie told me: He recorded two albums that didn’t sell in the U.S. and he ended his career by committed suicide on stage. What he apparently did not know is his albums managed to gather a huge following in South Africa among white liberals. Though huge in South Africa, no one there knew anything much about him; they weren’t even clear on how he killed himself. (Stories ranged from shooting himself to self-immolation.) The movie follows two South African investigators who, working independently, set out to find the truth about “Sugar Man” Rodriguez, where he came from, who he was, and how he died. So I settled into my seat in the theater prepared for a somber story of a frustrated artist who finds redemption after death as people seemingly a world away find meaning in his work. Instead I got something much richer and uplifting as the movie takes a turn that I (and, judging from the gasps of surprise, most of the people in the theater) weren’t expecting. Of course now that some time has gone by the so-called secret of the movie is less guarded and obscure, which makes the whole structure of the movie feel a bit gimmicky, but I was still moved by the story. Even without the impact of the twist, the unfolding of the story is still remarkable.
At the outset the film explores two questions. First, why wasn’t Rodriguez successful in the U.S.? Forget successful. Why didn’t he garner any kind of cult following here? The movie gives us no clear answer; in interviews his producers wring their hands and shrug. The music is great (and it stands the test of time), the lyrics are creative and thoughtful, and his voice can be gut wrenching. Phil Ochs has been characterized as the anti-Bob Dylan (and heaven knows we need someone to knock Dylan off his undeservedly high pedestal), but as much as I love Phil Ochs, his lyrics and music are sometimes too playful, weighted down by irony and wit to truly rivaled Dylan. Rodriguez on the other hand had neither the time nor the inclination for those lyrical tricks. He looked at the world around him and saw little to cheer about – or get angry about for that matter. He cut to the bone – no, he cut to the emotional marrow of modern life. And if it comes off as somewhat lugubrious, well, what’s so great about modern life anyway?
The second question the film tries to answer is why did he catch on in, of all places, South Africa? According to South African music writers interviewed in the film Rodriguez’s deep pathos and anti-establishment lyrics caught on amongst white liberal Afrikaners because it spoke to their discontent with a repressive government and stirred up feelings the heavily censored media sought to prevent. It is suggested that his music introduced the idea of anti-establishmentism in what was an authoritarian military state that ruthlessly stamped out any hint of opposition to the state or its apartheid policies. I don’t know if this endows Rodriguez with more influence than he really had or not, but it’s certainly fascinating that a quiet guy from Detroit can sing some songs, disappear, and change the lives of millions of people without even knowing it.
If you haven’t already read about the surprise of the movie do yourself a favor: see this movie cold. Avoid the temptation to read up on Rodriguez or what we now know about his remarkable life. I know it’s hard, but trust me you’ll enjoy the movie more, a movie that manages to juggle several disparate themes expertly. We come away thinking about the power of art over repression, the ability of one man to touch many (in almost Capraesque fashion), the power of myth and the insidiousness of rumor, the importance of living your life and doing what you love with integrity and passion, and, the laughably predictable corruption of the music industry.
Going back to the question of why Rodriguez didn’t catch on in the United States, I would like to pose a potential answer now that I’ve had a chance to listen to both of his albums. It seems Rodriguez came a little late. Maybe if he showed up six, seven, eight years earlier when people were open to being challenged by music, he would have been huge. By 1970, after years of strife, Americans were ready for something tamer, hence we get The Carpenters (whom, by the way, I also love). Add to the bad timing the fact that Rodriguez’s music isn’t ready made to be a hit; there are no catchy hooks, no easy refrains cleverly engineered to invade the collective consciousness of young Americans (like Call Me Maybe). They are mournful, introspective pieces of music exploring life as it is, not as we wish it could be. There is no promise of better times, there’s nothing blowing in the wind, there isn’t a bridge over those troubled waters, and he never alludes to any mythical past paradise that allegedly had to be torn down to put up a parking lot. All he sees is wind, troubled waters, and parking lots. His music was too challenging, too thoughtful for America in the early 1970s burned out by years of social strife and violent discord. This explanation is probably too simplistic to fully explain Rodriguez’s inability to make a mark, however small, in the U.S., but I think it’s at least part of it. In the meantime, go see Searching for Sugar Man and find out for yourself.