Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul was in a Cape Town record store in 2006 when he first heard about Rodriguez. “It was such an extraordinary story that I asked myself why nobody had made it into a film,” he says. “But I realized it was so familiar to South Africans that it lacked any interest.”
An unknown Detroit singer of Mexican origin, Rodriguez released two albums: Cold Fact in 1970 and Coming from Reality in 1971. His producers thought they had found the new Bob Dylan, but nobody paid any attention to the records and he disappeared.
Nevertheless, a copy of that first record reached South Africa in 1971 and word spread. So much so that if you went into any white middle-class home in the mid-1970s, you’d be sure to find The Beatles’ Abbey Road, something by Simon & Garfunkel and Cold Fact by Rodriguez. “In South Africa we thought it was one of the most important albums ever made, it’s that simple,” explains Stephen Segerman, owner of that Cape Town record store and one of the stars of Bendjelloul’s documentary Searching for Sugar Man, screening at this year’s In-Edit International Music Documentary Festival, which runs in Barcelona until November 4.
The apartheid-era South African government fostered isolation to maintain the status quo. “You have to understand that we didn’t know anything about what was happening abroad. Everything was censored,” says Segerman. Rodriguez’s lyrics, he says, helped to create the anti-apartheid movement. He was a legend. The rumor was, though, that he had committed suicide.
The film tells all this and what happened afterwards, when Segerman and a journalist went to find out how he had died. It would be wrong to ruin the ending, but suffice to say they didn’t get the answer they expected.