In the early ’70s, after two failed albums of politicised folk, Detroit singer/songwriter Sixto Rodriguez shot himself onstage. Or did he set himself on fire?
These were the rumours that accompanied the bootlegging of his 1970 album Cold Fact in South Africa, where his records caught the imagination of middle-class liberals.
In America nobody cared enough to spread them. But as SA recordshop owner Steve “Sugar” Segerman and journalist Craig Bartholomew found – and recount in Malik Bendjelloul’s astonishing documentary – the truth was even stranger.
It’s easy to see why Rodriguez’s music struck a nerve in Apartheid-era SA . Dylanesque in their gentle protesting, though more melodic, his songs “gave people permission to free their minds”, as one journo puts it, even as contentious tracks were scratched off the vinyl by censors.
It’s harder to see why he didn’t catch on in his homeland. Songs such as the haunted ‘Sugar Man’ (championed by composer David Holmes) are lost classics, blessing Bendjelloul’s four-star doc with a five-star soundtrack.
However fascinating the twists and turns – and we’re not telling – Rodriguez’s frustrated path presents a problem for the filmmaker.
There’s little footage of the man himself, an issue sidestepped with talking heads and animations of Rodriguez drifting through downtown Detroit like the ghost of troubadours past.
Producer Steve Rowland notes how, on the heart-breaking ‘Cause’, the singer talks of losing his job “two weeks before Christmas”; the next year, the record company made his lyrics a reality.