Featuring: Rodriguez, Steve “Sugar” Segerman, Dennis Coffey, Clarence Avant, Craig Bartholomew Strydom, Eva Rodriguez, Regan Rodriguez, Sandra Rodriguez-Kennedy
Director: Malik Bendjelloul
Writer: Malik Bendjelloul
Australian release date: 25 November – 2 December (Perth)
Reviewer: rolanstein (one-word verdict: enthralling)
When two South African fans of late 60s/early 70s singer-songwriter Rodriguez set out to discover the truth behind rumours of his spectacular on-stage suicide by either self-immolation or gunshot to the head, they uncovered a story far more extraordinary than any of the myths that had attached to the enigmatic artist. This documentary tracks their investigation to its inspirational and quite incredible conclusion.
Rodriguez was not quite a household name in Australia in the early 70s, but was far from unknown. His debut album Cold Fact (1970) notched up 55 weeks on the Australian album charts (thanks Wikipedia). Anyone regularly browsing the record stores during this time would have come across this album. Here’s a pic of the cover, which should jolt a few faltering memories:
Way back then, a suburban den of iniquity I often used to lob at with my brother’s motley crew on Sunday nights after the pub closed (Keato, are you out there?) always had Cold Fact on high rotation, so I knew it well. Indeed, one of the more memorable tracks, I Wonder, would sometimes inspire singalongs for a line or two (eg: “I wonder how many times you’ve had sex”) while another, Sugarman, included a reference to “sweet Mary Jane” – always guaranteed to elicit a tick of approval from the weed-worshipping counter-culture kiddies of the time.
Musically, I liked Rodriguez well enough, despite his vocal qualities resembling those of José Feliciano (whom I could not forgive for his mauling of The Doors’ monumental Light My Fire). He wasn’t quite to my taste stylistically – I was mostly into harder-edged stuff – but his lyrics were intriguing and subversive, quietly mocking of mainstream society; the spare song arrangements featured some strings and unusual percussion with the ubiquitous acoustic guitars and were thoughtful and interesting (looking back, great arrangements were a feature of rock’s Golden Age). I wouldn’t have rated Rodriguez as a top tier artist, but he was different enough to stand out.
His second and final studio album, Coming From Reality, was far less known locally than his debut, and like so many others, as the 70s progressed he faded from sight. Apparently he toured Australia in 1979 and 1981 (on the latter occasion with Midnight Oil), but by that time punk had erupted with a mighty shout of defiance and departed with a whimper, and for disillusioned post-punk moi a hippie folkie from the early 70s could not have been less relevant.
I had not given Rodriguez another thought until Searching For Sugarman. I wondered about the catch-line on the promo brochure: “The Greatest Rock Icon Who Never Was”. Wha’? Curious.
Well, curious is the word. The doco presents a perspective on Rodriguez I had no idea about (and neither, as it transpires, did Rodriguez!). He was HUGE in 70s South Africa, a towering cultural icon zealously embraced during the apartheid era by progressive Afrikaners and the young white community generally, for whom he was a figurehead of rebellion! Further, it seems the anti-establishment elements of Rodriguez’s music so inspired this generation of young South Africans that they were moved to take to the streets in protest against apartheid and the regime that supported it, which demanded great courage going by footage of some brutal responses from sjambok-wielding cops.
Remarkably given Rodriguez’ pervasive and powerful influence, according to one of his most devoted fans who figures prominently in the film, jeweller-turned-musicologist Steve “Sugar” Segerman, no one in South Africa knew anything about the guy beyond his music, which was initially smuggled into the country on bootleg cassettes.
The mystery in which Rodriguez was enshrouded was partly due to his obscurity in his home country, and partly attributable to the censorious government authorities that had South Africa in a stranglehold – information from international sources was almost impossible to come by at that time, according to Segerman. Indeed, the authorities seized Rodriguez’ records as they began to filter into the country and manually scratched particular tracks that they considered politically inflammatory to render them unplayable.
Of course, this bone-headed action had an effect opposite to that intended, fanning the flames of Rodriguez’ appeal among the young. Segerman claims that he became bigger than The Stones, his albums an inevitable inclusion alongside Abbey Road in youthful record collections in every liberal middle-class household in the country.
As imagination fed the vacuum of information on Rodriquez the myths around him flourished, helped along by rumours that he had suicided on stage. The filmmakers themselves carefully build on his mythical status in the first half of the film, presenting him not only as a massive cultural presence in South Africa, but as an unrecognised songwriting genius and visionary in his home country. In a slightly melodramatic rocknroll take on the mysterious birth of the mythic hero, two celebrated American producers interviewed tell the tale of “discovering” Rodriguez one otherworldly foggy night in an obscure pub in Detroit, strumming in a dark corner of the stage barely visible through cigarette smoke with his back to the audience, cutting through the haze with his soulful melodies and strange, prophetic lyrics.
Excerpts from Rodriguez songs feature throughout (they stand up well 40 years on), as Segerman and co pursue their hero, purportedly with nothing to go on but obscure references from interviewees that lead nowhere, and Rodriguez’ lyrics, which they scan for possible clues to his past that might offer a way forward to unravelling the mystery of what happened to him. This is a tad mischievous, it has to be said, since the logical place to begin the trail – especially for musicologists with advanced research skills – would surely be the list of sound engineers and muso personnel listed on the backs of his record covers! Logical, but not as romantic as seeking hidden messages from the dead! While the manipulation on the part of the filmmakers in the service of enhancing the drama is a little too laid bare at times, I ain’t complaining; this is a captivating doco every frame of the way.
And that’s as far as I intend to go in covering the content of the film. One of its great pleasures is the fascinating gradual revelation of the rest of the Rodriguez story. Be assured, the mystery of his disappearance from the 70s music scene is cleared up once and for all, but it is a remarkable irony that he remains as enigmatic a figure at the end of the film as in the beginning!
The resolution beggars belief, yet is wonderfully, joyously factual – a real-life fairy tale, no less, that warms to the marrow, affirming the power of music to change lives for the better and demonstrating that poetic justice is not necessarily merely a construct of fiction.
Searching For Sugarman is a worthy opener to the 2012-13 Lotterywest Perth Festival Films season, commencing at UWA’s Somerville outdoor cinema site on 25 November, and moving to Joondalup Pines outdoor venue (4–9 December, 8pm). See here for full Festival Films program details.
For other Boomtown Rap movie reviews, see Movie Review Archives