[2 August 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The story of Rodriguez – full name Sixto Diaz Rodriguez – is a fascinating, even heartwarming one, so it’s no wonder director Malik Bendjelloul decided to make a documentary about the obscure singer-songwriter from Detriot. Rodriguez, after getting discovered by Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore at a local bar, recorded two albums – 1970’s Cold Fact and 1971’s Coming From Reality. Despite being critical favorites, neither record sold well, Rodriguez drifted into seclusion, and there were even rumors he had committed a very public suicide on stage.
What’s remarkable about Rodriguez’s story is how his first record, Cold Fact, made its way to South Africa and became a huge sensation. His record became a soundtrack for the anti-Apartheid liberal African youth, and his influence and adoration there led people to look for him. Which is what the film Searching for Sugar Man is all about. The soundtrack to that album looks to give you insight into what exactly that South African youth heard in Rodriguez, what about him became vital kindling for the fire of revolution.
If the fact of his music making its way to South Africa is remarkable, you can hear in his songs why his songs caught on once they were there. Rodriguez sings of the down and out, of those stuck in their situation by some outside force – not Apartheid, but race, poverty, drug addiction, class war, you name it. He’s a man taken by life on the Detroit streets, and despite the warm tones of his guitar, the lilting strings that melt over it and the spare percussion that holds it up, there is something distinctly urban about his music. Most of that quality probably comes from Rodriguez himself, his full voice, honeyed and full, but low and just barely rasping at the edges, something more assured than Mickey Newbury and more hopeful than Michael Chapman’s but with the same powerful timbre.
And when you hear the tune “Sugar Man”, you both see him fall into a tradition and make his own individual space in it. It’s a drug tune, a plea to the title character for “jumpers, coke, sweet Mary Jane.” If the desperation here is plain, even something we’ve heard before, the heartfelt delivery is not. There’s nothing condemning or romantic about his down-and-out character, but there’s a sympathy in his voice that is heartbreaking, an understanding of that low place. Rodriguez’s skill in these songs – culled from his two albums – is his ability to relay the gritty without giving in fully to bitterness. He may grin a bit as he asks bed-hoppers in “I Wonder”, “How many times you’ve had sex” and “Do you know who’ll be next?” He is similarly critical on “Like Janis”, taking aim at a person who can “measure your wealth by the things you can hold”. Even when he criticizes though, you can hear an air of empathy, a hope that there’s a way to turn it all around.
So while it’s hard not to hear Dylan’s influence on the terse listing lines of “This Is Not a Song, It’s An Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues” or the jangly ramble of “Inner City Blues”, there’s a clear difference here. Dylan’s aims were poetic and often couched in as much cynicism as hope for change. Rodriguez’s observations and keen eye for detail comes out of the everyday. “Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected,” he complains, or “Mafia’s getting bigger like pollution in the river.” He doesn’t turn away from the darkness, he documents the “coldness at every turn” on “Can’t Get Away”, but the sound of his music – with light flutes, strings, etc, the rising lilt of his voice – is transcendent. Even when he turns to heartache, on the excellent “I Remember You”, he admits the hurt but finds a kernel of sweetness in it, in the first feeling you get in remembering love before you also remember it’s gone.
With a clear eye towards problems but a heart tuned to positivity and action, you can see why Rodriguez appealed to the youth of South Africa. The soundtrack to Searching for Sugar Man makes the case for the basic power of his music, and does so convincingly. But rather than play like a greatest hits, it seems to also want to show all the different turns Rodriguez could make. And while he is a singular songwriter and charming performer, they don’t all fit perfectly. The impressionistic poetry of “Cause” is an interesting turn, but its gloomy mood feels too heavy handed for such a subtle performer. “Sandrevan Lullaby - Lifestyles” has the same overcast problem. Rodriguez’s work is best when it’s bright and punchy, when tension is converted to unbridled energy. These darker tunes, full of “judges with meter-maid hearts” feel like forced experiments next the more effortless power of a song like “Sugar Man”.
But make no mistake, Rodriguez has the spotlight on his now for a reason. This stuff is right in the 1970 singer-songwriter wheelhouse, but it’s got a distinctive voice, one powerful enough to make it across the ocean to another continent, to inspire people to action. The movie tells the story, but this soundtrack gives us the raw material, the stuff that got people talking. And it’s no wonder the conversation got so loud.