“I’m not actually wearing that guitar,” he says. “They added that.”
It’s just a minor Photoshop accouterment but you still have to wonder: Why? The story of Rodriguez, which is told in the new edge-of-your-seat documentary is the rare tale that’s so improbable and perfect that it doesn’t need even the slightest assistance in mythmaking.
Until now, knowledge of Rodriguez’s career was sort of a litmus test for one’s level of music fanaticism. To know of Rodriguez was to truly be an inner-circle rock nerd. “Searching for Sugar Man” opens the history books. Here’s the short version: The Detroit native, a son of Mexican immigrants, releases two albums of streetwise protest songs in the early 1970s, billed simply as Rodriguez. The lyrics were elegant and graceful, the messages potent. He was supposed to be the next Bob Dylan, but Rodriguez’s albums never cracked the Billboard 200. Career over. There was no fade into obscurity; he never escaped it in the first place.
Yet somehow in the next decade his music made its way to South Africa and struck a chord, particularly with the nation’s liberal, anti-apartheid youth. He eventually became a superstar there on the same level of legends such as Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones. One minor issue — his entire South African fanbase was under the assumption he was dead. Meanwhile, Rodriguez went about his life as a factory worker in Detroit, completely oblivious to his international stardom.
The events leading to Rodriguez’s eventual “resurrection” drive the narrative of “Sugar Man.” It’s a series of mind-boggling events with almost too-good-to-be-true coincidences. The film showed on opening night at the Sundance Film Festival in January, was quickly snatched up by Sony Pictures Classics and went on to win the Audience Award in the World Cinema Documentary category. It opens in wide release on Aug. 3; more than 40 years after American audiences first ignored Rodriguez, they will get a memorable reintroduction.
“I was resistant to it,” Rodriguez says about his initial involvement with the film. “I was reluctant. I was skeptical about the whole thing. I’ve had such an ordinary life.”
Pushing himself back into the spotlight seems at odds with Rodriguez’s personality. He speaks quietly, barely above a whisper. He often pauses, seemingly gathering himself in thought, only to then remain silent. He’s most talkative when the subject is his family (“My daughters are in the film — that’s the highlight for me”) or sociopolitical matters. Somewhat surprisingly, Rodriguez is almost hyper-aware of the business-side specifics of his new career. He knows that “Sugar Man” will be showing in exactly 84 cities, that his “Late Show with David Letterman” appearance is scheduled for Aug. 13, that his song “I Wonder” was Esquire’s song of the month. He mentions meeting celebrities such as Alec Baldwin, Sir Bob Geldof and Michael Moore. He also doesn’t seem to mind his new VIP treatment.