I checked the upcoming movie schedule on the web for Tacoma’s own independent movie theater, The Grand Cinema, and found “Searching for Sugar Man” is opening this Friday, Sept. 28. Then I saw it was playing in Seattle, so smoothly I swooped over there to see it before all y’all could. Well, you could try to swoop into Seattle yourself. Yours might be more of a swerve though. I’m pretty smooth.
“Searching for Sugar Man; you’ve never heard? That’s probably because outside of his family and friends in Detroit and Dearborn, Michigan, nobody in the U.S. had ever heard of songwriter and performer Sixto Diaz Rodriguez. Incidentally, his records have gone platinum since the early 1970s.
Wait, what? Dude sold over one million records and hardly anybody knows of him? Not even in the Midwest city where he lived all his life?
So begins the enigmatic tale of a rising star who just sort of faded out but simultaneously burned bright as the Sun?…but in an alternate dimension? I’m having a hard time with this metaphor. Let me just explain. In the late ‘60s between construction jobs, Rodriguez played gigs in seedy bars and clubs throughout Detroit. He wrote music so impressive that record executives worked quickly to fast-track him to the big time. They brought him to Los Angeles to record a first album entitled “Cold Fact”. The record is fascinating. It draws interesting comparisons to Bob Dylan with a blend of pop/rock/folk sound but gives a unique nod to the harsh urban images impressed on him in late-‘60s Detroit. It’s sublimely melancholy yet fully ensnares the vitality of youth, protest and the city.
While it wasn’t immediately successful at all, critics in the U.S. appreciated the debut record. a year later record producer, Steve Rowland took Rodriguez to London to record a follow-up album, “Coming from Reality”. It also flopped after
its release and almost 40 years later, Rowland breaks down in sorrow lamenting the last song Rodriguez ever recorded in- studio, “I’ll Slip Away.”
But what so few Americans had known, least of all Rodriguez himself, was that his music was becoming an international sensation. “Searching for Sugar Man” is an investigation into how art can experience such dichotomies of success across oceans. The movie moves nimbly between fleshing out the peculiarity of Rodriguez’s fame in places like South Africa, and back to the States to explain the mystery of Sixto’s lackluster and ordinary life at home.
Gritty Tacomans will appreciate this doc’s sensitive depictions of Detroit and surrounding environs. It captures all the melancholy of decaying street scenes interspersed with witty and earnest Midwest personalities that circulated among the times and places where the quiet, phantom-like Rodriguez haunted. As the artist was scraping along in the city completely unaware about the development of his own international legend, he was also uncommonly wise, remarking, “I realized that nothing beats reality.”
The movie about this sage is highly enjoyable, and now I’m off to find his records so I can enjoy his artistry sans ignorance.