Sundance 2012: On the trail of a mysterious star, Rodriguez


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Detroit birthed an amazing wealth of musical talent from the late 1950s to the early ‘70s -- Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, to name two. But the story of a stillborn talent -- that of an enigmatic Mexican American folk singer known simply as Rodriguez -- may be the most fantastic ever to come out of the Motown era.

On Thursday night, Rodriguez’s story -- captured in the documentary ‘Searching for Sugar Man’ -- left the audience at the movie’s premiere at Sundance Film Festival enthralled, with one man in the fourth row proclaiming the film ‘the best Sundance movie I’ve ever seen.’ Although the viewer didn’t elaborate on just how many Sundance movies he’d ever seen, it was clear that ‘Sugar Man’ was much more of a crowd pleaser than the less-than-full house at the Library Theater in Park City, Utah, had expected.


Born to Mexican immgrant parents in the early 1940s in Detroit, Rodriguez combined the inner-city soul of Motown singers with a Bob Dylan-like flair for songwriting, the gentle demeanor of a poet, and a suave sex appeal that brings Jimi Hendrix to mind. He played bars around the Motor City in the late 1960s, and cut two records that were critically well received but failed to sell.

Unbeknown to him, though, a copy of one of his albums somehow found its way to South Africa. As the movie explains, his lyrics, somewhat anti-establishment and suffused with a sympathy for the working, urban poor, resonated in Cape Town and other cities -- particularly among white, teenage South Africans who were beginning to question the country’s apartheid system. Some of Rodriguez’s songs were banned by the government, which only enhanced his appeal.

Rodriguez sold hundreds of thousands of albums in South Africa but apparently never received any of the profits, and remained a mystery to his fans. Many heard that he had committed suicide on stage. Though it’s hard to imagine now, in our wired, Internet-enabled world, Rodriguez never had an inkling about his massive fan base in South Africa, where, as people in the film say, he was ‘bigger than the Rolling Stones.’

In the mid-1990s, a Rodriguez fan named Craig Bartholomew --inspired by the re-release of one of Rodriguez’s albums on CD -- decided to search out what really happened to the singer. Not even knowing that Rodriguez was from Detroit (his quest took him to Europe before one of the singer’s lyrics clued him in to the fact that Rodriguez had a Michigan connection), Bartholomew uncovered some disturbing facts about Rodriguez’s career. But his search, aided by the Internet, eventually led to a remarkable discovery (we won’t reveal more, lest we spoil the second half of the film for you, but we may have more to say on this movie later in the festival).

‘Searching for Sugar Man,’ which takes its name from one of Rodriguez’s songs, is the first full-length feature from a kinetic Swedish director, Malik Bendjelloul, who was bouncing exuberantly as he fielded questions after the screening Thursday night. When one man commented that ‘this is what a Sundance movie should be,’ and thanked him for ‘reintroducing us Americans to a story we had lost,’ Bendjelloul looked himself like he would break into song.

If you’re not familiar with Rodriguez, listen to the clip below of him singing ‘Sugar Man.’


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-- Julie Makinen in Park City, Utah

Top: A photo of Rodriguez that appears in ‘Searching for Sugar Man.’ Courtesy Sundance Film Festival.