"Searching for Sugar Man" is a documentary about a musician very few people had heard about prior to this year. In the last six months, film festivals from January's Sundance in Utah through the Hamptons in New York on July 21 have played a central role in introducing a forgotten 70-year-old protest singer from Detroit: Rodriguez.
Sixto Rodriguez cut two albums of soulful folk rock for Sussex -- home to Bill Withers -- at the start of the '70s. Utterly unheard at home, his music took root in South Africa, where his political and personal themes resonated with the blossoming anti-apartheid movement. His legend grew there, but only arrived stateside when indie label Light in the Attic reissued "Cold Fact" in August 2008. (It has sold 17,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan.) "Searching for Sugar Man" will deliver Rodriguez's greatest exposure at home.
A unique string of double-bills of screenings and performances has generated a fair amount of buzz for the artist and this remarkable documentary about the curious facets of his life. The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and Rodriguez performed at BMI's Snowball in Park City, Utah; a Joe's Pub gig in New York complemented a Tribeca festival screening; less than two hours after a South by Southwest presentation he was onstage at Mohawk in Austin; and in Los Angeles, "Sugar Man" screened on a Tuesday, he played the Hotel Cafe on Wednesday and spoke about his music at the Grammy Museum on Thursday with Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard and the Jayhawks' Gary Louris. He tends to perform whatever strikes his fancy -- a cover of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" or Midnight Oil's "Redneck Wonderland" -- plus his own "Inner City Blues," "Street Boy" or "Forget It" on the rarely seen acoustic-electric nylon-stringed guitar.
"The beauty of his live performance is that you see the simple, honest, gentle soul you discover in the film," says Sony Legacy president Adam Block, who will release the film's soundtrack on July 24. (Light in the Attic will put out a double-LP vinyl edition in August.) "He's not pretending. It's imperfect and quite magnificent."
It's a unique model -- expose the film and an artist who has been under the radar for four decades -- that Sony Pictures Classics and the Booking Agency hope to continue when the documentary is released theatrically beginning July 27 in New York and Los Angeles. The film will roll out in major cities through the summer; Rodriguez will start a tour of at least 30 North American cities on Aug. 30 that runs through Nov. 5 before heading to Europe.
"We're waiting about a month to start the tour so the full impact of the movie is felt," says the Booking Agency's Christian Bernhardt, who has booked Rodriguez for more than three years. "We cover the major cities this year and then go into secondary markets next year. It's a similar approach that we took with Daniel Johnston when his film ["The Devil and Daniel Johnston"] came out [in 2005]."
The model may well parallel the Johnston effort but the hope is more in line with "Anvil: The Story of Anvil," the 2008 documentary that gave a new career to a long-struggling metal band from Canada. The difference here is that Rodriguez, in the United States, pretty much dropped out of sight after his two records went nowhere in the early '70s and has done only a few dozen shows in the last four years. Internationally, he toured Australia in 1979 and 1981 and made triumphant appearances in South Africa in 1998, the payoff moment in "Sugar Man."
The search for Rodriguez is made by a few fans and journalists in South Africa who cherished his music. To those fans, Rodriguez was as big as Bob Dylan, their isolation from the outside world blinding them from the, ahem, cold facts. Rumors abounded that he had killed himself onstage and they were determined to tell the truth about his death.
Once they discover he is alive, a six-show victory tour is arranged, and after the first night, the percussionist in Rodriguez's backing band figures they are in the middle of an extraordinary event and gets a friend to film the shows. Without that footage, this unbelievable story might feel like a hoax.
Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker bought the North American rights to "Sugar Man" prior to the Sundance screening, without seeing it first. (The film has been sold in 20 other territories, most recently Japan and South Africa.) Bernard read the description and decided, "If it's half as good as what I read, then it's worth having. And it's twice as good as what I read."
Rights in hand, the film was screened for Columbia Records chairman/CEO Rob Stringer, which led to more of Sony coming onboard, and a late-July release date was set. "It's a great end-of-the-summer movie that can carry into the fall and catch the returning college students," Bernard says. "It's going to be in the marketplace for a long, long time because the potential is way beyond the music audience. I call it the 'Shawshank Redemption' of documentaries."
In 1970, the only person who had an equal amount of faith in the man born Sixto Rodriguez was Clarence Avant, who made the singer/songwriter his first signing at Sussex Records. Avant jokes in the film that Rodriguez's debut, "Cold Fact," sold six copies -- and it's possible he's not that far off, as the album never charted, even locally.
Still, Avant stuck with him and sent Rodriguez to London to record a second album, "Coming From Reality," with producer Steve Rowland. Released in 1971, it, too, flopped just as Sussex was enjoying its first hit, Withers' top five single "Ain't No Sunshine." Cut from the Sussex roster, Rodriguez walked away from music and worked in construction and demolition, concurrently earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy and raising three daughters. He never left Detroit.
Fast-forward to 2002. Northern Irish DJ/producer David Holmes put Rodriguez's song "Sugar Man" on a mixtape that caught the attention of Matt Sullivan, then in the early days of his reissue label Light in the Attic in Seattle. But as it was for many -- and this is a key part of the "Searching for Sugar Man" story -- finding information about Rodriguez was beyond difficult. It took a couple of years for Sullivan to track down a copy of "Cold Fact," eventually buying an Australian CD on eBay.
After falling in love with the music, Sullivan began his own search for "Sugar Man," a journey that connected him with a record store owner in South Africa, Rodriguez's daughter Regan and Avant.
"It took about three or four years to convince Avant to sublicense the masters," says Sullivan, who recently set up a Los Angeles home for the label. "He was frustrated that he couldn't find anyone in the music business as passionate about [Rodriguez]. ["Cold Fact" producer] Mike Theodore was in touch with Clarence and he ended up convincing Clarence that we were the right fit."
Light in the Attic reissued "Cold Fact" in August 2008 and Coming From Reality in May 2009. Sullivan was key in getting Rodriguez back onstage as well, booking him at Joe's Pub in New York and the Echo in Los Angeles in 2008, then in London and Chicago, where he opened for Animal Collective the following year. A few dozen dates followed -- San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle, Atlanta -- but the reissues didn't spark the interest the way the documentary has.
While Sullivan was negotiating for Rodriguez's music rights, Malik Bendjelloul, a documentarian for Swedish TV, was traveling through Spanish-speaking countries in the Americas and Africa looking for stories that could be told in six-minute segments. His trip, undertaken in 2006, was going well.
"I found six stories I liked -- one in Ethiopia, one more in South Africa, one in Mexico," Bendjelloul says. "I was already happy, and then I found [Rodriguez's] story and it was 10 times better. It was the best story I had ever heard. It was a Cinderella story, but even better. It had a great soundtrack."
Bendjelloul, a rail-thin young man whose passion for Rodriguez comes through in a constant state of exuberance, is telling this tale on the patio of a West Hollywood, Calif., hotel restaurant where Rodriguez, seated beside him in his customary dark pastel suit, is listening to it all for the umpteenth time. Uncharacteristically, he interrupts.
"Cinderella? As opposed to Sleeping Beauty? I knew where I was -- and I like my family," Rodriguez says, before letting out a hearty laugh.
They have become a curious duo on this journey -- Bendjelloul, a music fan who can't believe Rodriguez's work was overlooked, and Rodriguez, who calls himself a "musical/political" artist and is just as likely to discuss Syria or political oppression as the music business or journalism.
At Q&As, Bendjelloul gladly defers to the subject of his film, letting him tell parts of the story that aren't onscreen. Truth be told, Bendjelloul knows more about the story than Rodriguez: He shot three-quarters of the movie before he ever met his subject; only because he had so much footage did Rodriguez agree to appear on camera.
"After he showed it to me I felt he had enough in there without me," Rodriguez says. "I'm only in the film eight minutes . . . He picked out everything and I try to have a little say in it. He was kind to me."
"There will be an interest in the soundtrack as a stand-alone expression," Sony Legacy's Block says. "It's part of the mystical quality of the story. Forty years later, the music holds up and in some ways it's more relevant today than it was acknowledged at the time. We all believe he is an artist who has created a magnificent body of work, and I'm glad he's still here to enjoy the acknowledgement."