I had put off watching this much-lauded documentary for most of 2012 for one reason or another, but after finally catching it today I don’t know why I waited so long. Essentially this is the story of a young Mexican singer-songwriter who grew up in Detroit and cut a couple of folk-rock albums in the early 1970s. His producers, agent and everyone else related to the industry who heard him at the time claimed he was better than Bob Dylan and would easily achieve the same level of success.
The film is quick to share Rodriguez’s music with the viewer and it’s pretty excellent stuff. However, for some inexplicable reason, neither of his albums sold at all. Soon after the release of his second album, his record label dumped him. A few years after that Rodriguez apparently committed suicide, live on stage – although here the reports differ, with some claiming that he set himself on fire, while other reports state that he finished his final song and then blew his brains out in front of an unappeciative crowd. And that was the end of Rodriguez and he disappeared back into muscial obscurity, from whence he had barely come.
Except in South Africa. Somehow, for reasons that nobody even now appears to fully know, a copy of Rodriguez’s debut album, Cold Fact, made its way through the apartheid censors, who ran the country like a police state at that time, and it found an audience. Before long, Rodriguez had become a huge star in the country, with copies of Cold Flat happily sitting next to LPs by The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel in the record collection of every discerning music fan in 1970s South Africa. He was “bigger than Elvis” by all accounts, despite nobody knowing anything about the man behind the music.
Malik Bendjelloul’s incredible documentary picks up the story of a South African music journalist named Craig Bartholemew-Strydom, who put it to himself to discover what happened to Rodriguez and how he had actually died. When he read the liner notes in Rodriguez’s second album, Coming From Reality, which even there begs the question for information about the artist and his fate, so begins his quest. Suffice to say that what he uncovered was truly remarkable, and even more than a decade after his story ends, Bendjelloul is able to tell it with an urgency, energy and sense of discovery that leaves audiences amazed, enamoured and teary-eyed.
Central to this story, however, is the music. Littering the film are tracks from both of Rodriguez’s published albums, together with some previously unreleased material from a planned third album – and there’s no denying the talent and vision of a true artist, regardless of your personal musical tastes. There is a greater story that unfolds, however, but one which you must let the film tell you for itself. The result is an incredibly touching and powerful story of art, humanity, modesty, fandom and also the bizarre way in which fame works, or in some cases, doesn’t.