Detroit, 1968. Music producers Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore go to see a new artist playing in a bar called The Sewer, just by the Detroit River. They drive to an isolated part of the Motor City, under the rain set by dark and heavy clouds. Freighters covered in mist sound off their weeping horns, sliding soundlessly on the river. Behind the door, another mist, born from the cigars held by shadows of men, covers a strange voice accompanied by the batting of a guitar. Following the ethereal sounds, Dennis lays his eyes upon a dark figure facing the corner, away from everyone, as if to force the present few to listen to the lyrics. Thus went the meeting that led to Rodriguez’s first album.
And thus is how writer-director Malik Bendjelloul’s 2012 documentary on two South Africans’ journey to find the rock ‘n’ roll hero of their nation, Rodriguez, starts. Wandering and drifting on the streets of 70’s Detroit as if a homeless person between shelters, Rodriguez put what he saw on the streets into his music, into his poetry. His most famous song, Sugar Man, that would go on to inspire young rebellious minds confined by a conservative society, was about a man who’d sell “sugar” on the streets Detroit, between beat-down bars.
Promoted, financed and described as a “prophet, a wise man”, Rodriguez’s albums amounted to absolutely no musical recognition in the United States, being dropped off label by his record house two weeks before Christmas because of poor sales.
Cape Town, mid-1970s. As the legend would have it, a single copy of Rodriguez’ album Cold Facts reached South Africa brought by an American girl who was visiting the country and her friends liked it so much that they made copies and passed it along. In the background, South Africa was facing the height of the apartheid, censorship and restrictions being laid upon everything and television being regarded as “communist”. Rodriguez’ lyrics spoke of sex and drugs to these oppressed people, especially to the young, becoming a mysterious rebel icon. It was his songs that taught the South African teens the word “anti-establishment” and the right to protest. Awoken by Rodriguez’ lyrics, young artist rose from inside the Afrikaans community to be the first unofficial opposition to the apartheid, themselves an inspiration to others.
After the fall of the apartheid, record shop owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman realized that the rock ‘n’ roll idol of South Africa was virtually unknown in his home country, United States of America. He decided to track him down, disregarding the legend of his suicide on stage, with nothing to go on except vague geographical references found in the lyrics. At the same time, journalist Craig Bartholomew decided to follow the money from the nearly half a million albums sold back to Rodriguez, as you’d usually do in the music business. Except no one in South Africa bothered to investigate the matter and responses were vague. Eventually, he tracked down the original released album by American record company Sussex Records and its owner, Clarence Avant, the former head of Motown, who had no idea of Rodriguez’ South African success.
On the brink of giving up, Craig came upon the lyric mentioning the town of Dearborn, part of Detroit, and eventually found Mike Theodore, the producer of Rodriguez’ first album. Together, Sugar and Craig asked Mike all the questions they could think of regarding Rodriguez, finally voicing their most ardent one : “How did he die?”. Confused for a moment, the music producer’s lips curled into a smile and said…
“But he’s not dead.”
What followed is a dream come true for millions of people and one man in particular.
P.S. : Thank you to Ioana Abaseaca for recommending such a deeply moving film about the magic of music and one man’s modesty in the face of life’s undeserved hardships.
Now shut off the TV. Pause your hurried life for a few moments. And listen.