AN INTERNATIONAL SEARCH ENDS IN DETROIT
recommended by Mike C. – PG 13 – Great Detroit Musical History and Story on Film
How is it possible that a musician named Rodriguez could bomb with two albums in the U.S., disappear into obscurity for years and then be unknowingly resurrected as a successful, inspirational hero in totally different country? Searching for Sugar Man tells the uplifting, almost unbelievable true mystery of Rodriguez, a story more extraordinary than any of the existing myths about him. From the producer of the Oscar-winning Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man is that rare film which connects with audiences and critics alike on an extraordinarily emotional level. Winner two awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, including the Audience Award, director Malik Bendjelloul’s documentary is a film about hope, inspiration and the resonating power of music. Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature. Official Web Site
In 1968, two producers went to a downtown Detroit bar to see an unknown recording artist – a charismatic Mexican-American singer/songwriter named Rodriguez who had attracted a local following with his mysterious presence, soulful melodies and prophetic lyrics. They were immediately bewitched by the singer, and thought they had found a musical folk hero in the purest sense – an artist who reminded them of a Chicano Bob Dylan, perhaps even greater. They had worked with the likes of Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, but they believed the album they subsequently produced with Rodriguez – Cold Fact – was the masterpiece of their producing careers.
Despite good reviews, Cold Fact was a commercial disaster and marked the end of Rodriguez’s recording career before it had even started. Rodriguez sank back into obscurity. All that trailed him were stories of his escalating depression, and eventually he fell so far off the music industry’s radar that when it was rumored he had committed suicide, there was no conclusive report of exactly how and why. Of all the stories that circulated about his death, the most sensational – and the most widely accepted – was that Rodriguez had set himself ablaze on stage having delivered these final lyrics: “But thanks for your time, then you can thank me for mine and after that’s said, forget it.” The album’s sales never revived, the label folded and Rodriguez’s music seemed destined for oblivion.
This was not the end of Rodriguez’s story. A bootleg recording of Cold Fact somehow found its way to South Africa in the early ‘70s, a time when South Africa was becoming increasingly isolated as the Apartheid regime tightened its grip. Rodriguez’s anti-establishment lyrics and observations as an outsider in urban America felt particularly resonant for a whole generation of disaffected Afrikaners. The album quickly developed an avid following through word-of-mouth among the white liberal youth, with local pressings made. In typical response, the reactionary government banned the record, ensuring no radio play, which only served to further fuel its cult status. The mystery surrounding the artist’s death helped secure Rodriguez’s place in rock legend and Cold Fact quickly became the anthem of the white resistance in Apartheid-era South Africa. Over the next two decades Rodriguez became a household name in the country and Cold Fact went platinum.
Despite his enormous popularity, Rodriguez’s personal life remained a mystery to almost all of his listeners. Various South African journalists and fans tried to uncover the truth about his life, and yet almost nothing was discovered – even about his legendary demise. When his second album was finally released on CD in South Africa in the mid ‘90s, two white South African fans – “musicologist detective” Craig Bartholemew and record shop owner Stephen “Sugar”
Segerman – decided to join forces in an attempt to get to the bottom of the enduring mystery of who Rodriguez was, and how he died. The investigation they embarked on was daunting; they initially found only inconsistencies and dead ends. Taking their cue from Watergate, they finally came up with a strategy to “follow the money,” figuring that if they could trace Cold Fact’s royalties, they might have a chance of uncovering the truth. They looked for clues in the only place available – Rodriguez’s lyrics. A mention of a suburb in Detroit finally led them to track down one of the original producers of Cold Fact, Mike Theodore. This contact uncovered a shocking revelation that in turn set off a wild chain of events that was stranger – and more exhilarating – than they could ever have expected.