Imagine being a rock 'n' roll superstar and not even knowing it.
That was the case for Michigan singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, who, using only his surname, recorded two albums of socially conscious folk-rock that flopped in the early '70s. He sank into anonymity, returning to his itinerant, working-class life in construction while earning a philosophy degree from Wayne State University.
He even tried running for mayor of Detroit. He didn't win.
But things were different on the other side of the planet, where his two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, made him a star in Australia, New Zealand and especially South Africa, where he was held in the same reverence as the Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel.
Yet he had no idea that songs of his such as Sugar Man and This Is Not a Song, It's an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues had become anthems of a generation in Durban and Johannesburg.
He also didn't know that many of his far-flung fans, because they could find no information about him in that pre-Internet age, assumed he was dead. One rumor was he'd committed suicide onstage by setting himself on fire.
Sparked by interest from longtime fan and Cape Town record store owner Stephen Segerman, who had set up The Great Rodriguez Hunt website back when no one seemed to know if the singer was alive or dead, Rodriguez finally toured South Africa in 1998 to adoring crowds.
This fascinating saga is the subject of a new documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, opening Aug. 17 in the Metroplex, including at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. For this, Rodriguez can thank a Swede, director Malik Bendjelloul, who stumbled across the singer's unlikely story in 2006 while working in South Africa.
"I was like, 'Wow, this is the best story I've heard in my life!'" recalls Bendjelloul in a phone interview from New York. "It was beautiful, extraordinary and true. It sounded like a scripted story."
It was two years before Bendjelloul had scraped together enough financing to start the project. Then, he began to unravel Rodriguez's crazy-quilt chronology, talking to such legendary Detroit producers as Dennis Coffey who, in the late '60s, thought Rodriguez was going to be huge.
"Every time you lifted a rock, you found another gold coin of small, beautiful details," recalls Bendjelloul. "The producers [of Rodriguez's albums] hadn't spoken about him for 40 years. They were working with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and they thought [Rodriguez] was better."
Of course, getting the reclusive Rodriguez -- who just turned 70 and still lives in bare-bones fashion in Detroit -- on film was a high point for Bendjelloul.
"I met him in '08, on the first trip [to Detroit]. I was very nervous. He was like this mythical figure, this shadow, a drifter. Was he really made of flesh and blood?" the director remembers thinking. "I met him and he was very private. He didn't want to be part of the movie."
Persistence paid off. "We went [to Detroit] six times and he challenged me, saying, 'If you want to do this movie, you need to come in July when it's hot, and in the dead of winter.' We did that. We were standing out in the snow [at his house] and he said, 'These guys are serious.'"
King of Cape Town
Some sticklers for detail might note that Rodriguez could not have been totally blindsided by overseas success. In 1979, he played Australia, and returned two years later to open for Aussie firebrands Midnight Oil, facts not mentioned in Searching for Sugar Man. (There's an Australia-only live album called Alive, a fitting title since so many people thought he was dead.) But the Australian acclaim was nothing like the mania he generated in South Africa, of which Rodriguez was unaware, which is where the film puts its emphasis.
In South Africa, the pointed songs by the son of Mexican immigrants became anthems of many in the anti-apartheid movement, especially young, urban whites. In 1998, Rodriguez headlined large venues there, playing Cape Town's 10,000-capacity Bellville Velodrome and two nights at the 6,000-capacity Standard Bank Arena in Johannesburg.
"I thought the story had to be from a South African perspective," says Bendjelloul. "The most beautiful part of the story is seen from the South African side of the fence."
Now, Rodriguez is getting his due in the U.S. His albums have been re-released, a soundtrack featuring his music has just hit the shelves, he's touring this summer (unfortunately, no Texas dates are scheduled), and he will be on the Late Show With David Letterman on Aug. 14. The documentary has been extremely well-received, winning the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize at Sundance.
Rodriguez, who originally wanted nothing to do with the movie, is now enamored with it. "He's seen the movie 35 times," Bendjelloul says, laughing. "He comes with us everywhere."
Cary Darling, 817-390-7571