A fantastic new documentary film with an incredible story is making the film festival circuit. It’s called Searching for Sugar Man, and it’s about an early 1970s musician from Detroit named Rodriguez. He put out two terrific records on somewhat obscure labels, and by most accounts withdrew completely from music after their lack of success.
His music is somewhere in the middle of a triangle between Bob Dylan, Cat Stevens and Harry Chapin, all of whom were contemporaries recording around the same time. Some have detected the influence of Arthur Lee’s band Love as well. Rodriguez’s debut album, Cold Fact, was released in 1970. It vanished without a trace.
Without a trace except in South Africa, where it’s believed an American expatriate who’d brought the record from Detroit began passing it around via cassette. Cold Fact ended up becoming a cult phenomenon over a decade after its initial release - shared with friends, played at parties, and even released by 3 different companies in South Africa. The anti-establishment sentiments in the songwriting very much connected with and inspired whites who disagreed with apartheid and the near-military state they were living in. The movie notes that “there wasn’t even TV in South Africa at the time,” and the state rigidly controlled the airwaves. The measures they took to keep “subversive” songs such as Sugar Man from getting airplay will astonish you. Despite the drug content of some of his tunes, he remained very anti-drug, explaining it was meant to be “descriptive, not prescriptive,” which is a fantastic quote.
His story reminds me very much of Nick Drake’s, who would’ve been recording around the same time period as Rodriguez. Both were criminally underappreciated in their time, only to grow a new audience years (or even decades) after their recordings were made.
The level of success he achieved in South Africa is mind-boggling: He was more popular than Elvis and the Rolling Stones, it’s said in the film, that “Any household with a stereo in South Africa had three records: Abbey Road, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Cold Fact.” Even more mind-boggling: for decades, Rodriguez himself had no idea how popular his music was in South Africa.
It’s easy to forget that in pre-internet days it was often difficult to find information about obscure artists. Nobody in South Africa knew anything about Rodriguez even as generation after generation of fans grew to love his music. There were rumors, and most of them were grim. Two South Africans went in search of the mysterious Rodriguez to set the story straight. The film Searching for Sugar Man chronicles their quest, and what they found out will astonish and fascinate you. Anyone with a love of music will be riveted by this tale.
You can watch a trailer here.
Hear the original recording of Sugar Man here. His albums are in print (at least here in the USA), and the iTunes version of Cold Fact has a couple of bonus tracks.