An acclaimed new
documentary film, accompanied by a near-flawless soundtrack, tells the unlikely
story of a once-forgotten singer-songwriter from Detroit.
BY FRED MILLS
Searching For Sugar
Man, the documentary about musician Sixto Rodriguez, opened a limited run
in New York and Los Angeles theaters this past weekend. August
will see openings in other cities, and if early reviews are any indication – as
of this writing, RottenTomatoes.com is showing a whopping 94% critical rating,
along with a 100% audience “liked it” assessment – the Malik Bendjelloul-directed
movie (Red Box Films & Passion Pictures Productions), stands to be one of
the year’s small-film successes.
Put briefly, first-time filmmaker Bendjelloul, a Swedish TV
director/producer, happened to be in South Africa doing research for Swedish
TV in 2006 when he encountered a local journalist, Stephen “Sugar” Segerman.
The writer had originally uncovered the story about Rodriguez, a Detroit
singer-songwriter from the early ‘70s who had issued a couple of poor-selling
albums before dropping out of the music business, only to learn many years
later that not only were his records highly prized among collectors but that he
had somehow become legendary – Dylan-like, almost – in South Africa. This in
turn led to an unlikely latter-day career revival for Rodriguez that continues
to this day (he’ll be touring intermittently throughout the fall; check dates
here). Fascinated, Bendjelloul commenced work on his documentary, which took
him from Cape Town to Detroit and beyond. Upon its completion the film
was submitted to Sundance where it got tapped to open the 2012 festival.
You can read more about Rodriguez in our two previous
features from 2009, “Seize the Moment” (the man’s backstory, the Light In the
Attic label’s reissues of the albums, plus an interview) and “Full Moon Rising” (a look at Rodriguez performing live with a backing band of younger musicians).
Meanwhile, there’s also a recent NPR “Weekend Edition” broadcast that features
both Rodriguez and Bendjelloul talking about the film and the artist’s long
strange trip to date.
To further stoke the fan-fires, Sony Legacy has teamed with
Light In the Attic for the Searching For
Sugar Man soundtrack, which culls 11 choice cuts from 1970’s Cold Fact (reviewed here) and its 1971
follow-up, Coming From Reality plus
three demos cut in 1972-73. Despite the material’s age, it’s remarkably
timeless in sound and vibe, from the soulful, Motown-tinged freak-folk of “I
Wonder” and the baroque protest-pop of “Sugar Man” to a track suggestive of Tim
Buckley in acoustic guitar/percussion mode (“I’ll Slip Away”) and several tunes
in the tradition of sardonic, talking-blues Dylan (notably the honky-tonk-esque
“A Most Disgusting Song”). As an introduction to the music and lyrics of
Rodriguez, the compilation is essential; for folks already familiar with the
man’s oeuvre, it’s a near-flawless mixtape.
To mark the release of the film and its soundtrack, I felt
it was appropriate here to reprint a portion of my 2009 interview with
Rodriguez, having been fortunate enough to spend a little time with him
following a concert in January of that year and subsequently share a phone
conversation a few months later. During the interview he was both soft-spoken
and self-deprecating, reflective at times as befits someone who grew up in an
era of great social, political and cultural turmoil. He also appeared genuinely
appreciative of all the good fortune that had been coming his way of late and
was excited to be making the touring rounds again regularly, in the wake of the
Light In the Attic reissues, understanding that “buzz” is naught but press hype
without something concrete and in-the-flesh to back it up.
BLURT: So – how are
you preparing for this tour? You’ll be touring more extensively, at least in
terms of the U.S.,
than ever before.
RODRIGUEZ: See, we’re all working at it, so I think it’s in
the air, you know? Busy at our craft. Yeah, I practiced with a drummer last
night and we went through a lot of material. The other day I practiced with
this other guy too – so I’m getting ready. I’m having a great time with this.
It’s totally – it’s a great time for me, and the thing is, it doesn’t happen
every week, so I’m serious at it. I gotta take this chance. It’s like Eminem
says, you get just one opportunity, so don’t blow it. [laughs]
Seize the moment – or
like the old ‘60s saying, seize the day.
Yes, exactly. Until I see the band again, we each just
practice on our own. And then when I hook up [with them] it’s like… waiting for
a love! Something like that, very much so. I’m glad to hear the band is getting
ready – and really, my stuff is simple. But we’re all very serious at it.
You’ve been through
this whole rediscovery thing three times now: first in Australia and New
Zealand, then South Africa,
and now America.
Does this create any anxiety for you – does it turn your world upside down each
time it happens?
I’m as nervous as a clock, so I reach for the rum or the
brandy. But yeah, you do get nervous; you’re reading me just right. So I have a
“cheer.” And then when I see them after the show, the fans and the fanbase and
the band, we’ll go out and party. Of course, last time we partied until four in
the morning, so I’m cutting down the parties on this tour! Just an hour. Because it gets intense. We’re going to
get up [each morning] at 11 a.m. and then out of that city. It’s getting so
Onstage you don’t
betray any nervousness. In fact, you appear pretty relaxed…
That’s just the way I perform. I have my eyes closed, I’m
listening to the band, and trying to remember my lyrics and trying to find the
microphone. So in a way, I’m almost in a trance when I’m up there. I’m getting
better at it – better at ending songs and stuff like that. But I don’t want to
be so manicured and sharp that it loses something. You know what I mean? So
right now, you’re watching me as I develop. The thing is, you have to prepare,
and be prepared. So that’s the other thing, why I’m practicing [at home], so
when we hook up we’ll knock it out.
In the late ‘60s and
early ‘70s, as a teenager my consciousness was expanding with the times, and it
seems like a lot of the topics and lyrical concerns on both your albums were
very much attuned to the era and what a lot of us were going through.
That word – “consciousness.” That’s a bigger word than I’ve
heard in a long time. That’s a bigger thing. When you reach that, you can’t go
back. You see, most songs are boy-girl themes, and I’m happy to do a ballad,
but there are other words, too, that will prove more [useful] in awakening our
When you walked away
from the music industry, was it just disillusionment over the albums not
They were totally not commercial successes. I just had to
go, hey, there’s gas, there’s the electric, water bills, and taxes and
insurance… So that’s what really pulled me away from the music industry. I
never left music, though. I never left that.
Have you continued to
write songs over the years?
Oh, yes sir. Oh yeah. Like I said, I was jamming with the
cats. And when we jam, I do a lot of covers – “Here, try this…” But I do write
new stuff. I think at my practices it’s 40 to 60 per cent new material.
How would you like to
be remembered? What would you want on your gravestone?
Wow. You are hitting right into my heart. Um… how would I
want to be remembered? That’s too tough a question! [laughs] Can I refrain from that one? Because sometimes I don’t have
that answer. It’s like when you asked your loved one a question and they don’t
have the answer for it. So… I’ll work on it!
Fair enough. I saw a
great quote of yours from a few years ago. You said, “Life ain’t chronological.
Some older people appear to be younger, and some younger people appear to be
That’s it. There you go.
What did you mean by
It’s just that I
think some people grow up a lot quicker and reach that consciousness earlier.
And other people are, um, a little spoiled – I don’t know if that’s the right
word – and I want to get away from people with those prejudices and their hates
and their fears.
I’ve been around
the world in three weeks, man. I went to Rotterdam
and then to Australia,
for example. And here’s my synopsis about the world: there’s enough for everyone, and in fact, too much for anyone. And
here they are, fighting for this, fighting for that. I want to say, “Stop
That is sometimes the
role of the artist, to make observations and then let people think about it
Yeah, that’s what it is. Usually my observations are like, “Hey man…” But what do I know? I can’t do
anything about it. But yes, I can speak to it.