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Editorial: A happy ending – with an amazing soundtrack

It’s cold. It’s wet. It’s March. We have a Congress full of jesters. The money is sequestered. So take a couple hours and treat yourself to a tale with a happy ending, the Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man, showing today and tomorrow at Red River Theatres.

The documentary, which has played in Concord twice before, tells the amazing story of Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit musician, construction worker and poet-philospher who, when his two early-1970s albums failed to sell, spent the rest of his life doing demolition work, performing day labor and living on the edge of poverty. But then comes the inevitable “meanwhile, unbeknownst to him” that is the soul of Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s film. In South Africa, Rodriguez was a bigger musical sensation than Elvis, Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones, and his songs became the anthem of the anti-apartheid movement.

The film is worth seeing for the music, for the lost history recaptured and, most of all, for the lessons Rodriguez teaches by being himself, a poor man devoted to art, a man made more humble by fame and a person so at peace with himself and his life that when wealth came his way he gave it away to his family and friends. In keeping with his humble nature, Rodriguez initially declined to attend the Oscar ceremonies because he thought his presence would take attention away from the person who really deserved it, Bendjelloul.

Searching for Sugarman follows the quest of two South African fans of Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, albums filled with Rodriguez’s songs about urban street life, class conflict and love, to learn his fate. All the searchers knew about Rodriguez was the information on his album jackets, but according to one legend, Rodriguez shot himself while performing on stage; in another, he immolated himself in front of fans. In the internet age, a fan could learn the truth in minutes, but the distance between rigidly-controlled South Africa and America was far wider in the 1960s and 1970s. While Rodriguez scraped to get by in obscurity, hundreds of thousands of his recordings were selling. To this day, he was never paid for his work and no one seems to know for sure where the money went.

Rodriguez, now 70, was born in Detroit, the child of Mexican immigrants. He came of musical age at a turbulent, creative time, America in the 1960s. In South Africa, as he later told an interviewer, his music inspired protest in the same way songs like Dylan’s “Masters of War,” Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” did in the United States.

Though the film takes its title from Rodriguez’s best known song, “Sugar Man,” a plea for a dealer to “bring back all those colors to my dreams,” the song that lit a fuse in South Africa was “The Establishment Blues.” In Detroit, its lyrics are as fitting this week, with the fraud and extortion conviction of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, as they were in the Sixties.

“Gun sales are soaring, housewives find life boring,

Divorce the only answer smoking causes cancer

This system’s going to fall soon, to an angry young tune

And that’s a concrete cold fact.”

Rodriguez still lives in his humble home in a rundown area in Detroit, but he has returned to the stage in America. After a gap of 40 years, he plans to release his third album. The film documenting this artist’s rise from obscurity to fame is a story to lift the heaviest heart. Take a few hours and treat yourself.

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