Working Class Hero
by Kevin Powers
The singer-songwriter known as Rodriguez came to me a little less than a decade ago, back in 2007-8ish, when I was just about to finish college. I had seen a movie trailer for an Australian film, starring Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish, called Candy. It featured a song that hit me like a freight train. After a couple Googles, I had it cornered. It was a song called "Sugar Man" from a little-known artist from the early 1970s called Rodriguez.
On my pizza deliveries over the next several weeks, I listened to this song over and over and over and over. I was literally in love with it. I didn't listen to any of his other stuff...
...until last year...
Written, Directed and Edited by Malik Bendjelloul
Based on the article "Sugar and the Sugar Man" by Stephen "Sugar" Segerman and the article "Looking for Jesus" by Craig Bartholemew-Strydom
Featuring original songs by Sixto Rodriguez a.k.a. Rodriguez
...when my mother saw this documentary called Searching for Sugar Man, which had recently won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. She became obsessed with Rodriguez's music. Every time I entered her shop (she's a self-employed hairdresser), Rodriguez was on. She talked about little else, listened to nothing else for months.
He seems to have that effect on people.
I loved what I heard. All of these beautiful folky ballads, heartfelt and honest. A singer with a clear voice and clearer message, a message made more powerful upon my own viewing of this film, a heartbreaking, yet uplifting, story in more ways than I could even begin to count.
The effect of Rodriguez's music had a strength unknown to anyone in America for decades. His music was little heard here. But, somehow, in the mid-1970s, Rodriguez's first album made it to South Africa, where it became a massive success, a call for unity in a country driven apart and tightly controlled by Apartheid.
As the film begins, we meet Stephen "Sugar" Segerman, a record store owner from Cape Town, South Africa, a man whose life was changed forever, like so many other South Africans, by the enigmatic Rodriguez's music. You see, over all the love and joy this music brought to these people's lives, a question loomed: Who is this guy? Stories of his death, most likely by suicide, circulated. Why don't we know who this guy is?
We then visit Detroit, Michigan, the home of Rodriguez, where a couple of record producers remember first seeing the man himself playing live in the late 1960s in a seedy bar by the Detroit River, his back turned to the audience. They got him a contract. He made his first record. The locals remember him as almost a homeless guy, a man who worked construction and other labor intensive jobs, a wanderer, a guy just trying to make ends meet.
Back in South Africa, a music journalist named Craig Barholomew-Strydon recounts a hunt he started in the 1990s. He had so many questions, most notable is the question of money. Rodriguez sold 500,000 records in his home country. Where did that money go? Craig thinks, If I follow the money, I'll find him. The money leads him to one man, Clarence Avant, a former Motown exec and owner of Rodriguez's label, who gets cussing mad when asked about the money. Hmmm?
The Hunt for Rodriguez continues. A website set up to the effect of a Missing Persons ad finds its way back to America, to a woman named Eva Rodriguez. She makes it clear to the South African "detectives": Rodriguez is alive. He's my father. A new story emerges. A revival is born. I won't reveal any of the happy (and heartbreaking) surprises this movie has in store to protect those who haven't seen it.
The late director of this film, Malik Bendjelloul, has seriously made a beautiful film here. It is gorgeously shot. It weaves all the pieces of this global, time-shifting story together seamlessly from the past to the present and back into key points of Rodriguez's life. He sprinkles Rodriguez's songs throughout the film. Most powerful is the interlude featuring the song "Crucify Your Mind," with which he creates a digitally rendered history of a snowy Detroit side street, the camera tracking as the neon lights of old business long-since closed down come back to life.
Searching for Sugar Man is so many things. It is a mystery. It is a story of redemption and revival. It is a love letter to the people of South Africa and how they were both redeemed and revived by Rodriguez. It is a profile of an incredible musician and songwriter, who never got his due, then sort of does. It is an indictment of the recording industry that I (small criticism) wish went further, but...
...It is above all an ode to the City of Detroit, Michigan, and the proudest son it never knew it had.
I have been to Detroit twice now. My wife and I went there on our Honeymoon (I know. I know.), but that's us. We would rather go to a postseason baseball game (Tigers v Red Sox, 2013 ALCS Game 3) than to some tropical resort. We went back just recently for another baseball trip.
When I think of Detroit, I always go in my mind to another, much more prolific, Detroit-born singer-songwriter in Paul Simon, who wrote a song in the early 1970s called "Papa Hobo":
"It's carbon and monoxide
The ole Detroit perfume
It hangs on the highways
In the morning
And it lays you down by noon
Oh Papa Hobo
You can see that I'm dressed like schoolboy
But I feel like a clown
It's a natural reaction I learned in this basketball town
I been sweeping up the tips I've made
I been living on Gatorade
Planning my getaway
Got a hell of a hockey team
Got a left-handed way
Of making a man sign up on that automotive dream, oh yeah
Oh Papa Papa Hobo
Could you slip me a ride
Well, it's just after breakfast
I'm in the road
And the weatherman lied"
Detroit is one of our country's lost children. A once-booming, vibrant, working-class city that created one of our greatest gifts and then abandoned it. A city that offered open arms to Blacks and European immigrants, then cast them aside, yet they stayed, they still stay, they persevere. A city that, in recent years, has fallen completely apart once again. It's a city that deserves to be saved, to be loved, to be remembered.
I suppose it's fitting that a man like Sixto Rodriguez comes from there, made his masterpieces there, was cast aside there, stayed anyway, lived his life, got by, inspired everyone who ever knew him, a number of people so few in the grand scheme of things.
As you get to know him in the last act of this film, you come to love the man and the city he loves. His daughters, tears welling up, tell us of him and his humble ways. We watch him amble around the crumbling streets of Detroit. We hear his construction crew buddy talk with the love of only a true friend. Tears well up. Beautiful music is heard. And thanks to this movie, it is heard by more Americans than ever before.
On that Note
I'm going to listen to Rodriguez indefinitely. His albums are available on iTunes and Spotify and wherever else you listen to music.
And on a Sad Note
The mastermind behind this film, writer/director/editor Malik Bendjelloul, went broke making this movie and even went so far as to shoot some of it using an iPhone. He was also known for having a long struggle with depression, which came to light after his suicide in early 2014. My heart goes out to him for giving his all in telling this important true story in the face of such a horrible disease. He made a beautiful film here, both visually and emotionally. I applaud him. May he Rest in Peace.