One of the finest and most unusual documentaries of the year takes as its central theme a familiar cultural obsession: the desire to know more about, and lap up the mythology around, our musical heroes. In this case, though, the plot’s very thickening becomes part of the story itself. In the refracted spotlight is one of those “lost” cult heroes, or a cult hero who never quite was, the Detroit-area folk singer artist known as Rodriguez, who released two albums in 1970 and ’71 and became a “monumental flop” consigned to a life of obscurity. Or was he?
Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul does a remarkable job of telling a story with a shrewd inside-out tactic, carefully withholding information and building our curiosity about a genuinely curious real-world tale. We move from the scene of the artist’s fleeting heyday, in Detroit and a smitten producer’s home in Palm Springs, but the pivotal action takes us to South Africa, where Rodriguez’s album Cold Fact — with its hit “I Wonder”— was something of a sensation, a legend in the making, unbeknown to the artist himself, who eventually returned to working construction.
Stephen “Sugar” Segerman and Craig Bartholomew-Strydom — a South African record shopkeeper and music journalist, respectively — spearheaded the detective work to find out more about a legend presumed dead. Thus, the film also touches on the strange phenomena of South Africa’s forced estrangement from the world stage and cultural data access under apartheid. As heard in musical snippets during the film, we can understand the makings of the obsession. Rodriguez had a strong lyrical and musical gift, writing of street-level struggles and philosophical issues with an incisive poetic flair.
This delectably twisted variation on the “where are they now?” story in pop music journalism is a fascinating reflection on the power of song and of cultural obsession. In a real way here, the search is also the subject.