Searching for Sugarman, Malik Bendjelloul’s film about the reception of Sixto Rodriguez in South Africa, continues to accumulate awards, critical acclaim and commercial success as its momentum gathers in the lead up to the Academy Awards at the end of next month. It is carrying Rodriguez, seventy years old and partially blind, onto the stages of the Royal Albert Hall and Carnegie Hall, festivals like Glastonbury, Coachella and Primavera and into the pages of the world’s great newspapers. Next month he’ll be playing Cape Town and Johannesburg again.
The film is exquisite and the story that it weaves between Cape Town and Detroit is remarkable and moving. There’s always something slightly magical about how an intense engagement with a particular situation can find an entirely unexpected resonance across space and time. And the enthusiasm of the South African fans who, to their astonishment, found Rodriguez alive and living the life of a poor man in the ruins of downtown Detroit and were then able to bring him to a rapturous welcome in Cape Town is infectious.
The story at the heart of the film, the redemptive return of a hero, is an ancient one. But this particular telling of that story draws its power from the kind of man that the hero proves to be. In his first single, I’ll Slip Away, released in 1967 under a version of his name mangled by a record company that thought it commercially expedient to disguise his Mexican origins, he declared that “You can keep your symbols of success” and “I’m not choosing to be like them.” And from the beginning Rodriguez tried to make his way and to define success on his own terms. At an event to market himself to the record industry suits in Los Angeles in 1970 he gave the stage to the Brown Berets, militant Chicano activists. These kinds of choices may keep one’s soul intact but they don’t do much for one’s career.