If we were to ask you what you thought was the biggest story at this year’s Glastonbury is, you could say it’s the Rolling Stones’ headline set. Or perhaps, due to timeliness, you might suggest Mumford & Sons’ first gig since bassist Ted Dwane’s brain clot scare a few weeks back. But for us and many others, one of music’s most amazing stories will be unfolding on the Park Stage on Saturday, where American folk singer Rodriguez will be playing one of the biggest crowds of his life.
Those of you unfamiliar with the name Sixto Rodriguez are not alone: he was an obscure singer known to very few people in America and Britain until recently when he became the subject of Searching for Sugar Man, a film that won global acclaim and the Oscar for Best Documentary. It’s also one of the most stunning movies ever made about a musician.
The film opens in South Africa where local music fans Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Strydom help paint a picture of Rodriguez, a mythical American folk singer who recorded two albums in the early seventies that had an enormous impact in their home country. His tracks were regularly censored by the government and a few of the songs became rallying cries for the Anti-Apartheid movement. As they describe it, Rodriguez was bigger than Elvis and the Rolling Stones and his albums were regular fixtures in many South African homes. Thing thing is: very little was known about the man himself.
Thanks to there being no internet or anything, urban legends began circulating about how he killed himself: some believed that he pulled out a revolver at the end of a set while others suggested that he covered himself in petrol and set himself ablaze. But in fact, none of his fans had any real idea about who the man was beyond the pictures on the album sleeve of a enigmatic man wearing shades.
In the film ‘s first half hour, Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul beautifully recreates the mythology of Rodriguez for an audience that’s never heard of him before. Using newly shot 8mm footage, archive photos, animated sketches CGI and talking head interviews, he’s able to convey the significance and romance that surrounds this mysterious figure, allowing him to seamlessly shift gears into the film’s next act: one that sees fans Segerman and Strydom become detectives on the trail of their hero.
We’re not going to spoil any more of the film for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, although you can probably guess from his Glasto billing this week that Rodriguez isn’t actually dead. But the story of what he did in the intervening years and what happened to him after he was rediscovered by fans from another continent is something that really needs to be seen.
There could be casual comparisons to Anvil! The Story of Anvil which followed a once-promising Canadian metal band twenty years after their prime. But where the charm of Anvil laid in the fact that the band’s optimism perhaps exceeded their ability, we’re left with little doubt that Rodriguez actually had the talent to be as big as Leonard Cohen was. The soundtrack features over a dozen of his original songs and it’s not terribly hard to see why he was held in high regard by studio heads and producers who had worked with singers like Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin.
In some ways, Searching for Sugar Man is a modern fairy tale, telling of a humble man who is one day plucked out of obscurity and given the recognition he was denied almost a lifetime ago. Filled with improbabilities and strange twists of fate, it’s one of those stories you would find far-fetched if it didn’t actually happen. Fascinating and utterly entertaining, the film’s incredible climax sent chills down our spine like nothing else in recent memory.
So if you’re heading down to Glastonbury or even if you’re planning to just follow the BBC coverage: do yourself a favour and see this movie first. You’re going to want to say that you were there the moment when Rodriguez took a long-deserved bow on one of music’s biggest stages.
Searching for Sugar Man is now available to watch at blinkbox