In the early 1970s, Sixto Rodriguez was a Detroit folksinger who had a short-lived recording career with only two well received but non-selling albums. Unknown to Rodriguez, his musical story continued in South Africa where he became a pop music icon and inspiration for generations. Long rumored there to be dead by suicide, a few fans in the 1990s decided to seek out the truth of their hero's fate. What follows is a bizarrely heartening story in which they found far more in their quest than they ever hoped, while a Detroit construction laborer discovered that his lost artistic dreams came true after all. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Greetings again from the darkness. I make no apologies for my tendency to have higher expectations and be more demanding of documentaries than other films. When dealing with a real subject, event or person, there is no place for fabrication or embellishment. The truth must stand (and entertain) on its own. Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul has no such issue given his fascinating, almost jaw-dropping story of musician Sixto Rodriguez.
Described as Dylan-esque, Rodriguez was a folk singer and songwriter who put out two albums: Cold Fact (1970) and Comng from Reality (1971). Despite critical raves, the album sales were minimal and Sussex/A&R dropped him. After that, the story got a bit hazy. Urban Legend had Rodriguez dousing himself with gasoline while onstage, and committing suicide by lighting himself up. Mostly he just seemed to disappear, not simply fade away.
Nearly incomprehensible in today's age of internet communication, the Rodriguez songs became anthems for the anti-apartheid whites in South Africa. The music reached the country through bootleg copies and the popularity grew. We meet a Cape Town record store owner and indie music supporter names Stephen Segerman who describes Rodriguez as "bigger than Elvis" in South Africa. In the late 1990's a world wide web manhunt began.
What happens after that ... I will leave it to the film. Just know that this documentary is a blend of Mystery, Intrigue, Urban Legend, Who-done-it, and Where are they now? There is a brief interview with Clarence Avant, the owner of now-defunct Sussex Records, during which he provides the only real insight into the music industry underbelly. Additionally, so much of the story goes unexplained. So many questions unanswered ... even unasked! However, the story itself, and Rodriguez the man, are so amazing, that the entertainment and intellectual value of the film remains intact.
Since the vast majority (99% plus) of us have never previously heard of Rodriguez, the film does a nice job of integrating his songs in a manner that allows us to get a real understanding for the musical genius and why the critics (and South Africa) fell hard for it. This is a fascinating story and captivating film, despite lacking in "the rest of the story" department.
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