When I watched the wonderful, crowd-pleasing documentary Searching For Sugar Man at Sundance earlier this year, I had an advantage over audiences who caught it during its theatrical run: I didn’t know the fate of its subject, Detroit folk singer Sixto Rodriguez, who released two gorgeous, poor-selling albums in the early ’70s to a tidal wave of indifference in the United States, while a world away, his heavily bootlegged albums became smashes in South Africa. For the first half-hour, I did not know if I was watching a tragic documentary about an enigmatic folk singer who never got the attention he deserved and died in obscurity, or a rousing documentary about a brilliant but overlooked musician’s triumphant comeback.
In this instance at least, ignorance was bliss. If I’d done even the most preliminary research I would have discovered that Rodriguez was alive and well and living in Detroit, and not a tragic figure who killed himself onstage or died of an overdose in an alley somewhere, as his South African fans feared. For decades, Rodriguez unknowingly led a bizarre double life: Unknown and unheralded in his homeland, he was a towering pop icon and huge commercial force in a land he’d never visited. Rumors flourished throughout South Africa of Rodriguez’s sordid demise, even though in his native land he remained a public figure, albeit a minor one: a community activist who got a degree in philosophy, raised smart, passionate, politically engaged daughters, and even ran for political office.
Rodriguez’s double life as a secret superstar is a distinctly pre-Internet phenomenon. Accordingly, in the film, Rodriguez is eventually found through a website dedicated to tracking his whereabouts. The Internet may be flooded with misinformation, lies, rumors, and slander, but it also contains enough legitimate, verifiable information to make the world a smaller, less mysterious place. In a pre-Internet age, the question “What happened to Rodriguez?” would have sent dogged journalists on an epic, international quest for truth. In a post-Internet age, the question, “Whatever happened to Rodriguez?” can be answered within seconds simply by typing his name into Google.