WHEN the Oscar winners are announced at the 85th Academy Awards in Los Angeles on February 24, South Africans will have a very good reason to be interested in the best documentary feature category.
A film that is among the five nominees – Searching for Sugar Man – is, from a South African perspective, one of the most powerful and poignant yet produced.
I was in my early teens in 1970 when an album called Cold Fact burst onto the music scene in South Africa. It was by someone called Rodriguez, who was shown sitting cross-legged, wearing shades, in a small bubble on the cover. We knew no more about him than that he sounded a bit like Bob Dylan, only more accessible, and that he wrote some powerful, crazy lyrics. Oh and he had a song with the line: "I wonder how many times you’ve had sex / I wonder do you know who’ll be next . . .”
This, remember, was apartheid South Africa. We were governed by a puritanical National Party, which ran a racist dictatorship.
A key part of this film, which is a joint Swedish and British production, is the context of Rodriguez’s popularity in a country where a growing number of young white liberals were openly challenging the immorality of apartheid.
The anti-apartheid struggle by the victims of that system – black people – has been well documented. Less well known is how a large percentage of young whites in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, also supported the struggle. Something of that challenge to the state is revealed in clips from the 1970s of riot police breaking up anti-apartheid protests on the campus of the University of Cape Town.
While for me Sixto Rodriguez’s album was just one of a plethora of discs by brilliant anti-establishment artists from the era – think Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Jimi Hendrix and dozens more – for many his lyrics in particular spurred on their antipathy for and activism against apartheid.
One such person was Stephen "Sugar” Segerman, who later would work in CD production in the 1990s and re-release those pivotal couple of Rodriguez albums. The only problem was, no one could tell him who Rodriguez was, where he lived and whether he was still alive. So in his liner notes he asked rhetorically if anyone knew anything about Rodriguez.
It fell to Craig Bartholomew Strydom, a Johannesburg music writer, to take up the challenge of helping him find this elusive genius.
So here we have two South Africans desperate to discover the truth about a man who had simply disappeared after bursting on the scene with Cold Fact. Rumours abounded that he had committed suicide. Some even said he shot himself on stage. This was at a time when young rock star deaths were not unfamiliar. Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison all died at the age of 27 around 1970.
What makes this story so incredible is Rodriguez’s humility. His albums had failed abysmally in the key US and UK markets, selling virtually no copies at all. He firmly believed he had failed, and went back to a life of hard labour, demolishing and restoring old buildings in Detroit.
Little did he know that for a time in the early 1970s his record, Cold Fact, had outsold virtually everything else.
Once the South Africans finally discover he is indeed still alive and living in Detroit, they set in motion a plan to bring him out to this country for a series of concerts.
So finally, in 1996, more than two decades after the youth, gatvol with the apartheid government, had elevated him to icon status, this mixed-race man – his heritage includes Native American and Mexican – came out to this country and discovered that he was, in fact, a rock star; a living legend.
The film showcases all that is best about South Africans. The perseverance of the men who tracked him down is commendable, as is the hospitality shown to Rodriguez and his family. And his South African fans did not let him down either, turning out in thousands at his concerts, where he was backed by local musicians.
The fact that this film was made by outsiders, and not South Africans, gives it added impact. It is easy to blow one’s own trumpet, but when someone objectively does it for you, it is all the more satisfying.
In 1996, Rodriguez was unheard of in most of the Western world. Do a YouTube search today and you’ll discover he has, in recent years, been performing far and wide. Not bad for someone now pushing 70.
But had it not been for the curiosity of those two South Africans, it is a moot point if he would ever have enjoyed this moment in the spotlight he so richly deserves.
Roll on the Oscars. While I can’t comment on the other four films competing for glory in this category, I believe if Searching for Sugar Man wins it will be a huge boost for this country – there are lovely shots of Cape Town – not to mention what it will do for Rodriguez himself.
Finally, his records might start selling in big numbers in the US and elsewhere around the world. They’ll only be about 40 years behind South Africa!