In order to become a music legend, you, at the very least, have to be known. Thanks to Malik Bendjelloul’s debut feature documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, the solution to the problem of 1970s songwriter/musician Rodriguez’s obscurity has been found. At the beginning of the film, as far as the audience knows, Rodriguez was the victim of an onstage suicide, ending his misery in the midst of being unappreciated and unknown. Bendjelloul then segues into the folklore surrounding Rodriguez among the residents of Detroit, the city he inhabited and often made reference to in his songs (e.g. on the track “Inner City Blues” when he mentions Dearborn, an allusion that led to journalist Craig Bartholomew-Strydom and Cape Town record store owner Stephen “Sugarman” Segerman to track Rodriguez down in Detroit).
Rodriguez’s genesis as a musician started, appropriately, at a dive bar called The Sewer. After playing a number of shows huddled shyly in the corner with his back turned to the other patrons, his eloquence and innovative musical stylings soon garnered the attention of Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey, who happily produced the album when Rodriguez landed a record deal with Sussex (run by the former head of Motown Records, Clarence Avant).
His 1970 debut, Cold Fact, featured the signature song the film is named for, “Sugar Man.” Comparisons to Bob Dylan and the typical folk sound of the time did nothing to elevate Rodriguez to fame or recognition. When Clarence Avant (the most caricature-like figure in the film/alleged to have squirreled away any earnings Rodriguez made from South African record sales) is questioned by Bendjelloul in the documentary as to why he felt Rodriguez never gained the attention of an American audience, Avant asserts that it was because of Rodriguez’s heritage.
Regardless of any prejudice that may have existed at the time, Rodriguez’s talent could not remain entirely unnoticed. The legend of his eventual superstar status in South Africa states that a teenage girl brought the Cold Fact album over from the United States when she went to visit her boyfriend. Their friends started making copies of the record and soon everyone in Cape Town seemed to know all of the lyrics to Rodriguez’s songs. “Anti-Establishment” was the track that especially resonated with a population subjected to the discrimination of apartheid, ultimately becoming one of many Rodriguez songs that were banned by the government (his albums were deliberately scratched to be prevented from being played on the radio).
His forbidden nature, however, only served to shed more appeal. Surpassing the album sales of The Rolling Stones in South Africa, Rodriguez continued to exist in contented abstruseness as a construction worker in Detroit until the mid-1990s. His unawareness of such immense success is just one of the ways in which Searching for Sugar Man expresses how grateful we should be for what we have, namely living in an age where information runs as freely as beer into Homer Simpson’s mouth. Conversely, the finding of Rodriguez in a pre-internet age unfolds with the mystery of a thriller.
As more is discovered about this truly incredible, modest musician, the real meaning and theme of the story comes to fruition, a quote that Rodriguez himself crafted: “Hate is too strong of an emotion to waste on someone you don’t like.”