This weekend during the most recent storm to end all storms we watched the Oscar nominated documentary Searching for Sugarman. Over the last six months if you have been paying attention you might well have heard about this movie, and it’s subject, a Mexican American singer named Rodriguez.
The movie introduces us to Sixto Rodriguez. In 1970 the debut album from the Detroit singer songwriter was introduced with great expectations. Critics and music industry folks hailed the release as extraordinary and comparisons to Dylan, a Hispanic Dylan even, were everywhere. Unfortunately the music fans did not get the memo and the album failed to sell. Still believing in his talent and hoping to catch lightening in a bottle the record company released a second album to similar results. Two years into the seventies Rodriguez had gone from the next great thing to performing manual labor in construction in Detroit.
This, in most cases, would be the end of the story. In the life of the Sugarman however, as the movie explains, it was just the beginning. We learn that, unbeknownst to Rodriguez, his music catches fire, not in America, but of all places, in South Africa.
The movie is as much about his fans as it is about the singer. In South Africa as his stardom grows his legend does as well. While the singers music has become the soundtrack of a great portion of his fans lives, no one knows anything about him. In fact an urban legend circulates that the singer is actually dead, by his own hand. The story goes that he shot himself on stage, or in another version that he immolated himself, also on stage.
None of this is true. Sixto Rodriguez has continued a quiet, simple life in Detroit. As a couple of obsessed fans seek answers as to his story, his whereabouts, or even the truth of his death, the movie becomes a detective story.
Following the trail of clues we eventually see a shabby run down building in the cityscape of Detroit. Someone appears in a window, raises it, and we see, in the flesh, Rodriguez. Not dead. Alive and if not well, elderly and living.
The stories of his subsequent appearances in South Africa, the interviews with Rodriguez and his daughters, are remarkable. In the movie he is made to be a bit of a messianic figure, not caring about material things. We are told that much of the money he has made as a result of his late in life resurgence he has given away.
Last fall one could see, and I did see, stories on the singer on 60 Minutes, Sunday Morning, and a much heralded performance on David Letterman. While the story of his resurgence and his dedicated fans is important what needs to be known even more is that the singers music, music recorded over forty years ago, still connects. I have over the last few months listened to the music of Rodriguez and I have to tell you, he should have been successful. If nothing else it should make clear how random success is. We all know that there are people who are making millions with little talent and others who are gifted in great and special ways and struggle their whole lives to find success.
Life is not fair. Rodriguez, it appears, accepted this long ago. We are told he lived a simple, productive, life after his career as a singer failed. If he threw up his hands in anger and what if’s to the sky we never knew it. Seeing his success, with his almost shy seventy year old smile and self effacing manner the movie hits it’s mark. We all should feel better for having known the story. First and foremost however, listen to the music. It is exceptional.