Fifteen years ago a South African music enthusiast established aweb site that he called “The Great Rodriguez Hunt.” Rodriquez was an obscure singer/songwriter from the Detroit area whose two albums disappeared into the dustbin of the American corporate music business. Rodriquez vanished completely from the music scene and the only thing the South African had to go on were conflicting rumors as to the method of on-stage suicide Rodriquez had chosen to end things. Unbeknownst to the artist, Rodriquez’s songs reached South Africa during the darkest years of apartheid, his music and lyrics becoming anthems for change. Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary feature film that tells the story of those who tracked down the truth about this mysterious figure from the music industry of the late 1960s and early 1970s. I saw it at Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa, where it continued to play as this was written. In more than 50 years of movie-going I have never seen so many audience members sit through the credits more or less stunned then turn and talk to perfect strangers at length about what they had just seen.
Most of what fills up movie screens from Fort Bragg to Ukiah to the cultural mecca of “The City” itself is nothing more than crap, excremental pablum for the lowest common denominator of our brains. Pretty much the same can be said for what comes over the radio airwaves. How much air time do Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger get in comparison to Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga? Ever hear Chopin or Mozart outside of public radio? We not only need to amend the corporate influence on our electoral system, good citizens, we need to stop the corporatization of our arts. Everyone who reads this should demand of their local movie house more films of the quality of Searching for Sugar Man. Shutting the TV off in the land of Mendo-Lib is not enough. If you give your children or grandchildren pocket money to go see The Expendables 2 or the fourth retread of a comic book series on film you have just committed a small crime against humanity.
Searching for Sugar Man succeeds because it follows one of the most basic storytelling techniques, the quest of a few people to discover the truth about a mythic figure, but it grounds that tale in the reminiscences of hammer and nails construction workers, bartenders, and the few remaining people who actually knew the musical artist, Rodriquez. To spell out anything more specific about the story would create a major spoiler. Despite the truth that the voices of true artists are being crushed here in the States, Searching for Sugar Man ultimately proves triumphant and inspirational.
The humble tale of the musician, Rodriquez, reminds me, to some degree, of the fate of Jim Ford, a lost legend in the world of roots rock where soul, country and folk come together. His only album, Harlan County, derived from a musical land where the Mississippi Delta rolled right through the Appalachian Mountains. Jim Ford’s songwriting influenced many, including Sly and the Family Stone as well as Nick Lowe. Ford even claimed that he helped Bobbie Gentry write Ode to Billie Joe. We may never know the truth about that because Ford disappeared as thoroughly as Rodriquez in the 1970s, mostly into a deep haze of drugs. When he re-emerged in the 21st century it was a case of too little and too late. Jim Ford died in his trailer park home in Fort Bragg in November of 2007.