Way back in the 1980’s I was a Houston party DJ for colleges. One of the bands that I played all the time was the Judy’s, a group from Pearland, Texas. Their LP Washarama was full of enough pop hooks to open a series of bait shops. Back in the day, they were as popular as The Police and Michael Jackson. But, outside of Houston and Austin, no body had ever heard of them. The Judy’s were a great local band that never broke nationally.
I know that in today’s uber connected world it is hard to fathom regional success. Back when MTV was showing music, the Miami Sound Machine played stadiums in Brazil one week and birthday parties in Florida the next. Bob Seger was selling out hockey rinks in Detroit and barely filling clubs on the coasts. Mama’s Pride was the pride of St. Louis and unknown everywhere else. Angel was huge in the northern states and barely a blip on the southern radio. In 1979, Rush sold out two nights in 30 minutes in the Bayou City but was never played on Houston radio stations.
So it is easy to understand that music could be successful in one part of the world and not in the other. This was in the days before Clear Channel domination and formats being sold to radio stations, music packaged like boxes of soap.
All of which brings us to Sixto Rodriguez and the stunning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. The film is about the unusual journey that music makes in this world.
Sixto Rodriguez was a singer/songwriter from Detroit who put out two critically acclaimed records on Sussex Records. One was called Cold Fact released in 1970 and the second was Coming from Reality released 1971. Both of the records tanked and the singer faded into obscurity in the USA.
But, in South Africa, someone brought Cold Fact to their shores, playing it for their friends and making copies. Those copies spurned other copies. Eventually, a music company put the record out. It eventually became as successful as the Beatles Abbey Road or Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge over Troubled Water. For the South African youth, it was a voice of protest, a shining light of what could be in the shadow of Apartheid. It sold thousands of copies.
Many years later, on the re-release of the LP on compact disc, two rock journalists in South Africa decide to find out what happened to Rodriguez. Some have heard that he died on stage, either setting himself on fire or blowing out his brains in frustration. His death was part of the mystique of the legend. There were clues on the liner notes but few real leads. These guys wanted to know the facts, something in short supply when it came to Rodriguez.
The film Searching for Sugar Man is a true-to-life detective story of the how and the why of a man who touched the masses with his music. To give any more of the story away would ruin the greatness of the discovery.
Writer/director Malik Bendjelloul has crafted a film that is part historical document and part true life detective tale. He never shows his hand about the outcome of his discovery, letting the people involved tell their tale. This film is much like Stone Reader, the wonderful documentary about the lost writer Dow Mossman and his book The Stones of Summer.
I once read an interview with David Bean, the creative force behind the Judy’s. He got letters from every corner of the globe about how great the recording was. He said that if all the people around the world who had owned a bootleg copy of Washarama would have actually bought a copy, it would have been a million-seller. I know that I burned dozens of copies of the work for fellow fans and DJs because it was impossible to find the vinyl.
I hope that Rodriguez gets the respect he deserves from the world music community, it is long overdue. Searching for Sugar Man is one of the best films of 2012, a movie that should not be missed. It is not just for music fans but for everyone who loves a good story.