Wednesday, July 18, 2012


By D.E.Levine


He was supposed to be the next Bob Dylan.  At least that's what Clarance Avant, the head of Motown thought when he signed the  Detroit-based musician-composer-performer Sixto Rodriguez in the 1960s.

Known simply as Rodriguez, he made two albums in the early 1970s but they didn't sell well and he never achieved the fame and wealth that was forecast.  Painfully shy, Rodriguez frequently performed with his back to the audience.

In fact, people thought he was dead.  There were various stories about how he died and he was pretty much written off and faded into oblivion.

Except that wasn't the case in South Africa.  The protest songs Rodriguez had written and recorded struck a deep cord in a society that was struggling with apartheid and his bootlegged albums sold millions of copies without his knowledge or any royalties for him.

This amazing documentary, that unfolds like a mystery story, is the result of the Swedish director Malik Benjelloul's quest to fill in the blanks and find out what actually happened to the son of Mexican immigrants who never rose to the prominence anticipated but conquered and entire African nation.

The sound track of original music is stunning and resonates with the audience.  But, it is the story of Rodriguez himself that carries the emotional impact that makes this film great.

Now 70 and having remained in relative obscurity for 40 years, Rodriguez is achieving fame through this riverting documentary which enjoyed great success at the Sundance and Tribeca Film Festivals, and has begun to give a limited number of performances.

He has been, in a sense, reborn, after raising a family in Detroit, supporting them as a day laborer, and dabbling in political activism.  As a man he never strayed from his beliefs.  As a performer, he was never accepted and raised to the heights anticipated.

Now, in large part due to this documentary that began because a small group of ardent fans sought to know how Rodriguez died, Rodriguez is enjoying the long overdue notoriety and acceptance that previously was only found in South Africa.