My first introduction to the music of Rodriguez was with a cover of ‘Sugar Man’ in 1998, by South African Band Just Jinjer. Back then I was still a 15 year old freshman in high school, located in the northern suburbs of Cape Town, South Africa. And as far as I knew Rodriguez was a big name in the music industry. It never occurred to me to think otherwise – He was American, after all.
Sugar man, won’t you hurry
‘Cos I’m tired of these scenes
For a blue coin won’t you bring back
All those colours to my dreams
Silver magic ships you carry
Jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane
After an initial search through the local music store, it became apparent that he never released anything after 1970. And after reading a few articles on the man, nobody seemed to have a definitive reason why. Some newspapers were proclaiming that he’d committed suicide – neither could confirm the exact method though, including an on-stage gun to the head, drug overdose and a dramatic self-immolation at his final gig. Basically the newspapers were printing bullshit urban legends that fans probably made up, due in part to the isolation of 70′s and 80′s Apartheid era South Africa.
As information began to trickle in, it become apparent that Rodriguez was not even a well known artist in his home country. Whereas in South Africa, he was a household name alongside Elvis, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. This puzzled two South African fans, so they decided to find out the true story behind the mysterious man, once and for all – Why was he not famous in America and how did he die? To their surprise they find out that Rodriguez was very much alive and in Detroit, earning a living as a construction worker. Completely unaware of his platinum success in another country.
A strong debut for Swedish director, Malik Bendjelloul, who creates a superb documentary, blending in animation influences from America: The Bill Hicks Story and Waltz with Bashir, to good effect. The film is of course musically scored by Rodriguez’s back catalog and fits well with the scenes. The film goes into detail about how Rodriguez was finally tracked down and attempts to fill in the gaps of what went wrong for such a promising musician.
I highly recommend any aspiring musician see this film. You can learn a thing or two in true humility, from a man who only tasted success late in life. Seeing his three daughters react to their father’s eventual deserved recognition, is very heart-warming indeed. There were many people in the audience breaking out the tissues towards the end.
You can listen to the soundtrack for the film if you have a Spotify account, here.