Rodriguez: American Zero, South African Hero

Oscar Nominated Searching for Sugar Man Documentary Seeks the Truth or Does it?

By Elia Esparza

Sixto Rodriguez
Sixto Rodriguez

Much is being said about the documentary, Searching for Sugar Man which has already picked up a PGA and Sundance Award and is considered a sweetheart darling who just might walk away with the Oscar on February 24th. But the film is not without its critics and those who believe the story is not based on fact.

Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul filmed the story about how two diehard South African fans, Stephen Segerman, a former jeweler and journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom joined forces to investigate how the singer “Rodriguez” really died. They were trying to confirm rumors that the American folk-political singer had killed himself on stage. It’s been 40 years since Rodriguez’s album “Cold Fact” was released in South Africa and the songs became a healing balm to the people in opposition to their government’s oppression. Rodriguez’ music, lyrics were considered “protest songs.”  “Sugar Man” was the first of the track and it proved to have the most powerful and lasting effect. The lore is that the album reached South Africa when a woman brought home a copy for her boyfriend.

In the early seventies, Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit native born to Mexican immigrants recorded two albums that absolutely went no where in the U.S., and he disappeared from the music industry returning to his demolition and renovation work. What he didn’t know was that while living in a dilapidated house in Detroit, carrying refrigerators on his back, his recordings became popular in Australia and South Africa. In Cape Town, he was “bigger than the Stones,” according to those interviewed in the film. Rodriguez was a superstar in South Africa… unbeknown to him.

One thing the documentary fails to fully investigate, according to critics, is about what happened to all the money Rodriguez’s albums made? Journalist Bartholomew Strydom started his research and wondered what happened to the money. He got nothing but the run around. He smelled a “dirty money story.” Yet, the film barely scratches the surface on the money topic. But documentary wasn’t about the money, it was about the spirit of  a South African Mexican-American hero. Sussex Records then CEO and owner, Clarence Avant got very angry when the subject of royalties was brought up.

Rodriguez Malik

One critic stated: “…the filmmakers completely dropped the ball on the money angle…they took at face value the South Africa labels’ claim that royalties were sent to Sussex, and when Sussex deflected their questions, we never heard another peep about it. This is frankly shocking reporting, reeking of laziness.”

He was also rediscovered in Australia and some critics were upset of being left out of the film.

There have been rumors of those who believe the whole Rodriguez story is fictional: “…The dude is just like many obscure musicians who didn’t make it yet gained a cult following in odd places around the world. Unfortunately that wouldn’t get you the top award at Sundance. So the filmmakers made up a fictional story and now they’re gonna even get an Oscar.”

Sour grapes, these critics all sound like frustrated documentary filmmakers.

According to the filmmaker he sacrificed a lot in order to get his movie made. “It was very hard to finance, it really was,” said Bendjelloul in an interview. “The music and the illustrations and the editing was done by myself, but it wasn’t on purpose. I don’t think you should do that. I think you should collaborate with professionals, but I couldn’t because I didn’t get any funding. I borrowed money from friends and family. I didn’t really buy clothes for the last two years.”

But, what about the money? Bendjelloul said he didn’t get too deep into what happens with Rodriguez’s record checks today,”because the story is not really about money. We had a country during apartheid that was isolated, so we didn’t have any cultural exchange. The South African record labels didn’t search for him because they couldn’t bring him to South Africa anyway, it was a boycott. We had a guy who was living in a house without a telephone, which is not very common, and we had a time before the Internet, the third factor. I mean, there are a few factors that made this story happen and the money is only one of those factors, I think,” he explained when pressed why his film didn’t investigate more or follow the money trail.

Today, Rodriguez is 70 and while he worked in the wake of Bob Dylan, his music has more depth and he is truly a “shadowy street poet” and politician whose music consists of three chords and all about truth. In my opinion, Rodriguez’s songs are more concrete and with so much more character.

Rodriguez is a political musician, caring about the underdog, the less fortune. A smart and educated man with a degree in Philosophy from Wayne State University, he stands with President Barack Obama and equates The Affordable Healthcare Act to the same controversy back when farmers were told their children had to go to school, which meant pulling them off the farm where they helped their parents with the heavy work. “It took time for this education concept to catch on, but it did eventually,” he said in an televised interview. “Everyone deserves to have decent healthcare, so it will catch on too.”

Even if Searching for Sugar Man is part truth and part myth, it makes no difference because it brought this man and his music to the forefront where it should be in America and not just South Africa.


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Elia Esparza is a leading expert in communications and journalism targeting the burgeoning Hispanic market and has produced and written dozens of articles. President and CEO of Always Evolving PR and a Communications Specialist, Elia, incorporates her 18 years experience in the areas of entertainment and education public relations, and marketing. promotions, market research and translations (Eng/Span).