The documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” released this July, attests to the power of music, the kind of music that can inspire protest and help change the political course of a nation thousands of miles away from its source.
The film spins the tale of music, written, sung and recorded in 1971 in Detroit, Mich., that is so powerful that it jumped the Atlantic Ocean and found an eager audience in the then apartheid South Africa, especially amongst privileged white youth. Also restricted by the tightly controlled, highly censored, fascist apartheid state, these youth were so inspired by the working-class lyrics and soulful melodies that some joined the Black-led fight to bring down that racist system.
But the singer, Sixto Rodriguez, didn’t know for more than 25 years that he was “bigger than Elvis” in South Africa. That’s why the documentary calls him “the greatest 70s rock icon who never was.”
How two South African fans located Mexican-American poet-lyricist — songwriter-singer Rodriguez and brought him out of obscurity in 1997 is told like an exciting detective story. That’s why the movie has won fistfuls of film festival awards in the past few months.
What’s surprising when you examine Rodriguez’s songs is that the lyrics are not rabble-rousing or in-your-face. Even such tunes as “Inner City Blues,” “Street Boy” and “A Most Disgusting Story” are not obvious calls-to-arms. The most provocative poetry can be found in “I wonder.” It begins: “I wonder how many times you’ve been had/And I wonder how many plans have gone bad/I wonder how many times you had sex/And I wonder do you know who’ll be next.” It includes: “I wonder about the tears in children’s eyes/And I wonder about the soldier that dies/ I wonder will this hatred ever end … do you wonder?”
It’s the plaintive, yearning, totally honest-and-true way that Rodriguez sings, combined with his easy fingering on a six-string guitar, that touches the heart and mind. That’s why his music is said to have the political impact and cultural clout of the early Bob Dylan.
Even though Rodriguez’s music was famous in South Africa, little was known about the singer. His two records, “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality,” had been bootlegged, so he never received a penny in income over the decades. Rumors were that he had committed suicide. But an Internet search in 1997, called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt,” revealed, thanks to a message from one of his three daughters, that he was alive and working construction in Detroit.
That led to a series of concerts in South Africa in the late 1990s, and since the film’s release, to a current tour in the U.S. and an upcoming one in England, Scotland and Ireland. (For more information, see the official Rodriguez website: sugarman.org.)
While the movie has jump-started Rodriguez’ career, after a delay of 40 years, which provides a welcome, “good-eventually-wins-out” scenario, it does leave out one aspect of the story. The viewer can’t help but notice that footage of South African concerts shows all-white crowds.
Is that because of the lingering effects of “economic apartheid” — that Blacks can’t afford to attend? Interviewing Black musicians and activists to find out how they view the subversive role Rodriguez played in destroying the hated apartheid government would have added another whole, important dimension to the film’s impact.
But that observation does not diminish the overall importance of this documentary. May the poets, playwrights, novelists, songwriters, musicians and filmmakers of the 99% rise to inspire revolution as they expose and oppose the 1% in the struggles that lie ahead.
Davis self-published a pro-choice novel, “Love Means Second Chances,” in 2011.