“A remarkable tale of artistic resilience and rebirth.” – Rolling Stone
The story of enigmatic singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez is one that virtually beggars belief. In the early ’70s, the Detroit-born musician, the sixth child of Mexican immigrants, recorded two albums for Sussex Records, a label that would very soon after enjoy considerable success with Bill Withers. Cold Fact  and Coming From Reality  were both masterworks of folk rock, combining Dylanesque socially conscious lyrics with an inventive orchestral/psychedelic sonic palette and featuring contributions from Detroit legends Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore. Though critically successful – Billboard gave Cold Fact four stars at the time — the albums sold, by Sussex label owner Clarence Avant‘s own estimation, “six copies” in the US. Rodriguez subsequently disappeared into obscurity…or so he thought.
Unbeknownst to Rodriguez at the time, copies of these albums had made their way to other parts of the world. An Australian label bought the distribution rights for Australia and New Zealand, where he began to receive airplay. His biggest success, however, was in South Africa where his frank protest songs resonated hugely with the ever-growing Afrikaaner anti-apartheid protest movement. In a few short years, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality were staples in a liberal middle class South African’s record collection, resting comfortably alongside Abbey Road and Bridge Over Troubled Water. It’s estimated by some that they sold 500,000 to a million copies, though many of these copies were bootlegs. In any case, Rodriguez, by this time renovating houses for a living, never saw a dime. He was however, in the late ’90s, able to tour Australia and South Africa to sell-out crowds who greeted him as though he were a member of The Rolling Stones.
This improbable narrative is told in breathtaking fashion by Searching For Sugar Man, a new documentary about the artist which premiered at this year’s Sundance Festival, ultimately going on to win the Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best international documentary. The film began in 2006 when Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, partially inspired by a challenge in the liner notes of a South African reissue of Coming From Reality, set out to try and find out what had happened to this mysterious musical figure. (It was a commonly held belief that Rodriguez had died years ago. Mid-concert suicide by either self-immolation or gunshot was one of the more prominent/”colorful” theories). Originally intended to be a 10-minute piece for Swedish TV, Bendjelloul was so taken with the story that he spent the next four years turning it into a full-length feature. Its long awaited theatrical run began July 27th in New York and LA, and the film will be rolled out to more markets in the weeks to come. Watch the trailer below:
While the film was still in production, Light In The Attic, a Seattle-based label that has also reissued classics by Betty Davis, Karen Dalton, Serge Gainsbourg and The Louvin Brothers (in addition to releasing new albums by The Black Angels, Nicole Willis & The Soul Investigators and others), acquired the rights to Rodriguez’s back catalogue. In 2008 they reissued Cold Fact ["one of those rare lost albums that turns out to be a genuine classic," Pitchfork] and followed it in 2009 with Coming From Reality ["a classic and a true marvel that something so good could be under the radar for so long," Metro Times], the first legitimate pressings of these albums in nearly four decades. They are essential listening for anyone interested in the film.
Now 70, Rodriguez is poised to finally receive the kind of recognition he so richly deserves. In the wake of the Searching For Sugar Man‘s release, he’s scheduled to appear on Late Night With David Letterman on August 14th, and he’ll kick off a highly anticipated US tour in Washington, DC on the 30th.