Imagine achieving rockstar status and being completely unaware of your fame. In today’s Google-crazed world this would seem unheard of. However, this unlikely situation was not only the reality for a local Detroit man, it is the premise behind the film that took home the Oscar for best documentary at the 85th annual Academy Awards. “Searching for Sugar Man” is an intriguing film that dives into Sixto Rodriguez’s unknown musical success and late-in-life discovery.
Rodriguez first appeared on the Detroit music scene in the late 1960s. He released two folk albums and was known to perform at local dive bars. Even though music critics praised his work, some even comparing his lyrics to those of Bob Dylan’s, his music never made a significant impact on mainstream America. As Rodriguez’s uninspiring and short-lived career was quickly forgotten, he resorted back to working a construction job and living a poor life in the city of Detroit.
During the same time, yet on the other side of the world, Rodriguez was a music icon. His music’s message resonated with the people of South Africa and was considered the soundtrack to many of their lives. His persona commanded more celebrity than the Beatles and Elvis but lacked any credible background information. As a result, Rodriguez became the ultimate unsolved mystery.
Unsure if Rodriguez was dead or alive, a few South Africans began searching for answers to the question on so many people’s minds, “Who is Rodriguez?” Using Rodriguez’s lyrical landmarks as a treasure map, they were able to determine he once “met a girl from Dearborn.” To their delight, not only were they able to track down Rodriguez’s hometown to Detroit, they found the folk music sensation himself occupying the same home as he did for the past 40 years. Rodriguez was briefed on his international success and invited to the country where his records had been selling like crazy. Much to Rodriguez’s surprise, he performed his most popular songs, once only heard by a handful of indifferent crowds, to a sold-out arena of screaming fans.
Sound too good to be true? Swedish filmmaker, Malik Bendjelloul, thought so too. Malik had been traveling around the world searching for an unforgettable story to bring to life. After passing through Cape Town and hearing Rodriguez’s story, one of which he described as being, “close to a classic fairy tale, like Cinderella,” he knew he had to share it. Searching for Sugar Man immediately created a buzz after premiering at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and just this past Sunday was commended again when the documentary won an Oscar.
Its recent win was not only a victory for Malik but one for the city of Detroit as well. “Searching for Sugar Man” is a feel-good movie that exudes hope and inspiration. The film is a testament to the greatness that stems from Detroit and Rodriguez characterizes the type of person the city of Detroit attracts — one who always sees the silver lining. When asked if he could go back in time and change anything, his response was, “There is only one direction and it’s forward. It’s never too early or too late. I just wasn’t meant to be so lucky back then.”
Now at the age of 70, Rodriguez is receiving the worldwide recognition he deserved decades ago. The music legend continues to play his 1970s tunes while gaining new listeners. He will be performing in May at Detroit’s Masonic Temple and will be sure to attract a passionate fan base much like he did for his first performance in South Africa years ago.