In the late 1960s, a Mexican-American singer-songwriter is signed to a record label after two Motown producers see him performing in a seedy Detroit dive called The Sewer. He delivers two albums, which receive rave reviews (he is compared to Bob Dylan; some say he is better than Bob Dylan), but nobody buys them, so he drops from sight, and would have stayed dropped from sight, but for one remarkable twist: unbeknownst to him, particularly as he never saw any royalties, he had become a massive hit in apartheid-era South Africa, outselling both Elvis and the Rolling Stones. The artist is Sixto Rodriguez and this film, his story, is the best, most touching, most humbling documentary I’ve ever seen about a musician I’ve never heard of. Further, I would also venture it may well be the best, most touching, most humbling documentary about a musician you’ve never heard of, too. I don’t know what makes me think this, I just do.
Made by the Swedish documentary maker Malik Bendjelloul, whose grip on storytelling is sure, this works equally well as detective story, personal portrait and study of a particular time in history. Rodriguez did not sing about the pretty things of life, nor did he have a pretty life. People who knew him in Detroit, back in the day, assumed he was ‘a homeless person.’ The first track on his first album, Cold Facts, is ‘Sugar Man’, a bleak portrait of a drug dealer and his clients. Other songs, like ‘I Wonder’ and ‘Inner City Blues’ addressed social, political and racial inequities.
Somehow (long story), Cold Facts made it to South Africa, where Rodriguez became a ready-made anti-establishment figure for those white Afrikaners who wished to overturn apartheid. (Old footage shows it’s a purely white thing, although I couldn’t tell you why.) Still, as one talking head puts it, every white liberal home in South Africa in the Seventies had the following three albums: The Beatles’ Abbey Road, Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water and Cold Facts. And there was little the government could do to keep Rodriguez in check, unless you count scratching his records whenever they could get their hands on them, which they did. (‘Hello, dear, did you have a nice day at the office?’ ‘Yes, dear, I took sharp implements to a few LPs, and find I’ve worked up quite an appetite.’)
The thing is, though, because South Africa was so culturally cut off at that time, and because this was before the internet — I know; fancy! — his fans assumed he was rich and famous back in America. Either that, or dead, as there were rumours he had committed suicide on stage, either by setting himself on fire or shooting himself in the head, depending on who you asked. Now, this is tricky, as I don’t want to give too much away — is he alive or dead? If alive, doing what? — or say exactly what was discovered after years of dogged detective work, but I will say there’s a brilliant scene when, in an attempt to follow the money, the film-makers conduct a marvellously awkward, difficult interview with Clarence Avant, a former chairman of Motown Records and owner of Sussex Records, the now-defunct label that first signed Rodriguez.
On a few occasions, this is a film that overstates its case. At some junctures, it’s as if Rodriguez single-handedly overturned apartheid himself. He has an incredible voice, and his lyrics are powerful, but up there with Dylan? More Dylan-y, probably. Ultimately this is a film about fame, opportunities and luck and, although I’m still not going to give away any of the many twists, I can tell you it ends remarkably pleasingly as befits a remarkable man, who may be alive. Or dead. Like I said, this may well be the best, most touching, most humbling documentary you’ve ever seen about a musician you’ve never heard of. Actually, I’d bet my life on it.