I’m still buzzing from all the great music I was exposed to at last weekend’s Cambridge Folk Festival, and in particular witnessing Nic Jones’s brilliant return to the stage, so I’m in no particular need of an adrenalin fix in the form of the heartwarming story of the adoration and intrigue inspired by a shortchanged, but formidably talented singer-songwriter. I got one anyway though, in the form of the wonderful new documentary Searching For Sugarman, the subject of which is the mysterious Rodriguez (first name indeterminate, but probably either Jesus or Sixto), a drifting construction worker from Detroit who in the late 60s was discovered singing self-penned counter-cultural songs in a local bar. He was signed up and two albums were released, Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming From Reality in 1971, and based on the extracts used in this film both would seem to be drop-dead classics, full of lushly but tastefully orchestrated, richly melodic anthems that stand out from the crowd due to their composer’s distinctive vocals and unusually intelligent, direct and anti-sentimental lyrics, which stand comparison with those of Dylan, or Gil Scott Heron. Neither album sold squat in America, and Rodriguez had his contract terminated in short order, whereupon he disappeared from view entirely.
Well…not entirely. Copies of Cold Fact found their way to South Africa, where its fearlessly anti-establishment vibe chimed perfectly with liberal dissenters to the odious and repressive apartheid-upholding regime then in power. Word spread, and the album started to get wide-scale distribution by RPM records, to the point where, despite getting hardly any airplay on the conventional media channels, it became a stock item in any self-respecting enlightened household – everyone had it, alongside their copies of Bridge Over Troubled Water and Abbey Road. By the 80s Rodriguez was indeed bigger than Elvis in South Africa, and his music and attitude were a pivotally important influence on radical upcoming musicians. Nobody, however, knew the first thing about him beyond the scant information on his record sleeves. The rumour was that he had committed a sensational on-stage suicide – there was certainly no evidence that he was still alive.
Searching For Sugarman, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, tells this story through interviews with Rodriguez’s fans, former producers and Detroit co-workers (none of the latter had any idea that their mate even played the guitar, let alone had become a cult figure), before going on to relate what happened when a South African journalist decided to pursue the story of how the singer actually died. What follows is amazing, and while I wouldn’t want to spoil it, I’ve got to say I haven’t been moved in this way since the scenes of Anvil turning up to an stadium in Japan packed with adoring fans at the end of The Story Of Anvil. I seem to be crying quite a lot in front of people playing guitars on stage these days. Must be getting old. Anyway, this is a fantastic film – go see it at once if you need a dose of non-cheesy feelgood, or even if you don’t.