40 Years Later, Detroit's Bob Dylan Is Discovered in ‘Sugar Man’

The thrilling, true story about artistry, circumstance and the global village sparked a standing ovation — with the Sundance audience both crying and cheering

A thrilling, true story about artistry, circumstance and the global village sparked a standing ovation — with the audience both crying and cheering — at the Sundance Film Festival Friday morning.

"Searching for Sugar Man" is one of those rare stories that are so improbable they can only be true.

An obscure folksinger called Rodriguez, writing and singing about the hard streets of Detroit in 1970, was considered by many in the music profession to be a talent on the order of Bob Dylan.

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HIs lyrics, set to a heart-stirring rasp of a voice, told about the homeless and the working poor. Songs titled "Street Boy," and "Inner CIty Blues," and "Cause" told the tale of society in decline and the cold comfort of the drug dealer around the corner — "Sugar Man."

The album was called "Cold Facts," and it  went nowhere.

"I can't believe this album didn't do anything," said Steve Rowland, a veteran music producer who worked on it, in the film. "No one in America was interested in listening to him. How could that be?"

Rodriguez did a second album, then faded away, quickly.

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But unbeknownst to apparently anyone in America, a parallel reality was building across the globe in South Africa, where a bootleg album went "viral" on tape and eventually was on vinyl in stores (though some songs were censored by the government). Rodriguez's anti-Establishment message fuelled an underground cultural movement in the 1970s that inspired a generation of white, anti-Apartheid South Africans.

Over the next three decades, South African music distributors estimate Rodriguez sold a half-million albums.

"He was more popular than Evis," says one in the film. Every teenager in South Africa had his albums.

And a myth arose around Rodriguez: who was he? Where was he from? No one knew. They believed he'd committed suicide on stage, a rumor that hardened into fact. 

SPOILER ALERT:

But Rodriguez was not dead. He was a construction worker in Detroit living in poverty, and having abandoned music completely.

Two South African journalists spent three years looking for him, and the story of how they found him, and connected him to the vast audience he inspired at a key moment in political and social history is one of the most inspiring stories I have seen in a while.

First time filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul (pictured) does a beautiful job building suspense and coaxing the still-shy artist from his shell.

It was a great way to open the festival.

At the Q&A, the director was asked why Rodriguez didn't catch on in America.

Bendjelloul put it down racism — the fact that Rodriguez's name is Hispanic (his origin is mixed Native American, Mexican and Caucasian). But he didn't really have a good answer, nor did anyone in the film.

The randomness of the fate of Rodriguez is an interesting meditation on the kismet of music and the culture industry. And from one perspective it offers a window into what might have happened if Bob Dylan never got famous. What happens when the artist just live alone with his art, undiscovered?

The joy of this film is that Rodriguez's art was in fact discovered, and it touched millions a half a world away, and he ultimately learned how he touched people.

Remains to be seen where the millions of dollars in royalties that are certainly due Rodriguez (whose first name is Sixto and who has several eloquent grown daughters who appear in the film). That is another story that needs to be investigated, and told. 

Rodriguez appeared with the filmmakers at the morning screening, looking as dark and mysterious as he did in 1970.

I asked if he was not bitter about the lost money owed him: "I hope to clear that up, this year possibly," he said, before ceding to demands from the crowd for a song. (See video)

He will be playing a full set on Monday on Main Street in Sundance.