Rodriguez was a Bob Dylan-esque folk-rock singer-songwriter from Detroit, who released two albums in the early seventies, greatly acclaimed by the few that knew him, but both of which completely failed to sell in America. Indeed, when his former label president is asked how many records he thinks Rodriguez sold there he immediately replies; ‘six’. Aside from his failure to achieve success, he was also known to be a highly mysterious figure. Fellow Detroit natives describe him as being like a ‘homeless person’ who they would see wandering around the city with no apparent motive, and when he performed, he did so with his back to the audience. He never recorded again, and reportedly ended his final show by committing suicide on stage.
A strange thing happened with his music though, at some point, a copy of his first album arrived in South Africa, where his popularity grew and grew to the extent that he was more popular than Elvis there, but no-one in America knew.
Years later, in the 1990s, a South African fan, long believing that Rodriguez was as well know everywhere as he was there, started to discover that this was not the case, and what’s more, no-one seemed to have any information about him at all. After teaming up, with a fellow fan and music journalist, they set out to discover the truth behind the mysterious legend.
In telling the story of their search, Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul also gives us some insight to the censorship heavy climate in Apartheid-era South Africa, when Rodriguez’s popularity was growing, as well as some anecdotes from the few that knew him in Detroit.
Rodriguez himself, is a presence overlooking the proceedings through his music, which soundtracks the entire film, effectively introducing it to us and helping us to understand why it meant so much to so many people in South Africa.
Some music fans may know the outcome already (after the search did take place over a decade ago) but really it’s best to stay away from Rodriguez’s Wikipedia page and just see this. As one of the searchers sates, ‘the best was yet to come’.
It’s established that documentaries can be just as shocking or important as narrative feature films but it’s quite something to say that in 2012, not only was one of the best thrillers a documentary (The Imposter) but also the best feel-good film was. And I really mean that, this isn’t a ‘rockumentary’, or a film just for people who like this kind of music, it is a life-affirmingly wonderful story.