Sixto Rodriguez had a simple vision of success. "I just wanted to sell some records and play bigger rooms," the 69-year-old musician said after Tuesday's New York premiere of "Searching for Sugar Man," the documentary that brings his life story to the screen.
But that was not to be. In the early '70s, Rodriguez recorded two albums in the United States, working with some of the biggest producers in the industry and even attracting a capable suitor in the form of Motown Records. Cold Fact (1970) was released on Sussex and quickly followed by Coming From Reality (1971). Both inspired massive expectations and comparisons to Bob Dylan. Neither sold more than a handful of records.
Rodriguez was dropped from his label and went back to the simple life from which he came, working in hard labor in Detroit's rougher pockets. It's not accurate to say he was forgotten, because no one really knew who he was in the first place.
Decades passed without any interruptions in the singer's life. He lived in a meager home and devoted himself to his work. But during those years, in another corner of the world, he was bigger than Elvis. His records had made it to South Africa, where Cold Fact became a sensation, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and joining the Beatles, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones in the music collections of every musically literate Cape Town resident. The man on the album, with his sunglasses, hat and cross-legged pose, was a cipher. Nobody in South Africa knew who he was.
"Searching for Sugar Man" is the story of how that happened, and what happened next. Though it's a bit of a spoiler, it's impossible to write about the film without describing Rodriguez as he is today. At the Tribeca Film Festival screening on Tuesday, he looked every bit the rockstar, clad in leather pants and sunglasses, speaking softly and walking with a cautious yet deliberate gait.
And he received a rockstar's reception as well. The audience gave him two standing ovations, and at least three of the "questions" in the Q&A portion were simple expressions of gratitude. The singer displayed an ease on stage, jokingly offering his "deepest condolences" when an audience member said that he was also from Detroit. When performing, Rodriguez cuts a mythic, almost ghostly figure, especially since he played to an audience that was treated to an encyclopedic retelling of his life story -- so much of it having occurred without his knowledge.
"It was the best story I've ever heard in my life," director Malik Bendjelloul told The Huffington Post after the screening. "I was almost afraid to listen to the music, because I thought, 'it can't be as good as they all say.' But it was."
Bendjelloul, a documentarian who has worked with the likes of Kraftwerk, Prince and Madonna, was in Africa scouting stories when he discovered the search for Rodriguez. "I did feel a big responsibility," he added. "The story was so good that it was a big responsibility as a filmmaker to make a film that was as good as the story."
"Sugar Man" is remarkable because it conjures an overwhelming, unique sense of hope. It's a tale of talent being recognized, of humility's triumph. Though Rodriguez may yet reap the fiscal benefits of his work (a soundtrack will be available and the albums are now for sale in iTunes), it is clear that he values another currency higher than money: appreciation.
If the warm embrace he received in New York is any indication, he's going to be a rich man.
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