Film: Searching for Sugarman

Image: Red Box Films

Image: Red Box Films

Jane Leek writes on Thinking Faith: ‘Thank you for keeping me alive’ says Jesus Rodriguez to a sell out auditorium of fans he never knew existed in this entrancing and uplifting documentary by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul.

In the early 1970s Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, a Mexican folk-singer songwriter in Detroit, was dropped by his record label, Sussex, after two critically acclaimed albums of songs of inner city poverty, hope and struggle that didn’t sell. His label boss wondered if the record sales had been a total of six! Yet the producers cite Rodriguez as one of the greatest talents they had ever worked with.

For the rest of his life Rodriguez was a hard working labourer in factories and on building sites. However in South Africa his albums had multi platinum sales and lay alongside the Beatles Abbey Road as part of popular culture: in that country Rodriguez was bigger than Elvis.

A bootleg cassette tape of his first album, Cold Fact (released in 1970) found its way to South Africa where an eager audience, politically isolated by sanctions and anxious for change, discovered songs that seem to have been written for them. The South African Broadcasting authorities banned tracks such as Sugar Man for their apparent anti-apartheid messages and there is graphic evidence of vinyl deeply and deliberately scratched to render it unplayable. Despite this, three South African record distributors made prodigious sales of Rodriguez’s two albums which are credited with fuelling the anti-apartheid movement at a crucial time. Although South Africans tried to find Rodriguez through the record distributors they were met with evasion and silence. Rumours of an onstage suicide spread. All this time Rodriguez had no idea that he had an adoring audience in South Africa that thought he was dead; that he had multi platinum sales; and had given two generations musical inspiration for their struggle. There was no communication from his record company, no royalty cheques.

To read more of Jane's review, see:

Tags: Jane Leek, Jesus Rodriguez, Malik Bendjelloul, Sixto Diaz Rodriguez

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