PARK CITY, Utah - He was compared to Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones, but his records flopped and his musical star faded without trace — until he was rediscovered in South Africa. “Searching for Sugar Man,” in competition at the Sundance film festival, tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, who made two albums in the early 1970s but then quit music — and who knows nothing about his fame on another continent. The documentary was made by first-time director Malik Bendjelloul, who first discovered Rodriguez while travelling for six months in Africa in 2006, and was fascinated by his story. Bendjelloul recalls that he learned that Rodriguez was born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1942, but his musical career ended almost before it began, while all other stars around him were making musical history in Motown.
“Are you kidding me ? This is the greatest story I have ever heard,” he told AFP at the independent film festival, on in the ski resort of Park City, Utah, which will continue until January 29.
Indeed, Sixto Rodriguez’s story could have been crafted by a Hollywood screenwriter with a taste for the romanesque. Born into a Mexican immigrant family, he was discovered by two producers in a bar, where he was famous. Hoping they had found Motown gold, they helped him record his first album, “Cold Fact,” in 1970.
It was a success, but did not sell well. The next year, when he started working with another producer, came his second record “Coming from Reality.” Again, it showcased Rodriguez’s talent, but flopped commercially. Taking a hint, the young Rodriguez gave up his musical ambitions, and went off to work in the construction industry. But while his records failed to take off at home, by accident a bootleg copy made it to South Africa, where it struck a chord with progressive young whites, exasperated with the apartheid system.
His success there was such that, given the fact that the artist himself was not around, bizarre stories began to emerge about him, including one that claimed that he had committed suicide by setting himself alight on stage.
In the end, the curiosity of two young fans broke through the myths: they found he was still alive, living in the United States. They brought him to South Africa where he was greeted as a hero in 1998, playing six sold-out concerts.
“Searching for Sugar Man” tells the story of those two fans’ search for Rodriguez, and of his musical renaissance.
“It was a lot of pressure because I had to make a movie as good as the story and as good as his music,” said the director, adding that his biggest fear, before embarking on the film, was that he might be disappointed by the music.
“I was afraid because this was the best story I had heard in my life, and I don’t even wanted to listen to it because... what if it’s bad? I played it to a Dylan fan and he said, ‘This is better than Bob Dylan.’
“‘Cold Fact’ is just one of the best albums of all time,” he added.
So why did he fail to take off in the 1970s?
Bendjelloul blames race.
“Now it’s very different, with Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony ... the people in the industry don’t care. Race doesn’t matter anymore in America,” he explained. “But at that time, if you were Mexican you could play music, but Mexican music, mariachi...
“But Rodriguez was challenging the white rock scene, the Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground and Bob Dylan. And at that time in America, I don’t think you were allowed to do that. You should stick to what you are supposed to do.”
Despite those issues, in the film, Rodriguez voices no bitterness.
Now aged 69, he looks well, despite the modest life he has led — he never got a cent from the thousands of albums sold in South Africa — and appears calm, detached, and amused by his belated musical recognition.
A tour is planned in the United States this summer, which will allow US music fans to judge for themselves.
“I’ve never met anyone in my life with so much dignity,” said Bendjelloul. “Really, you feel this grace, this kind of royalty when you meet him, and you feel so much respect for him.
“He should be treated with respect, love and justice.”