Friday, March 08, 2013

Searching for Sugarman

I saw the Oscar winning film "Searching for Sugarman" yesterday and have to admit that I fit right into the film's intended audience. For those who know nothing about the contents of the film (like I was, prior to watching), here's a precis: at the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s, an otherwise unknown musician known solely by his surname, Rodriguez, recorded two albums. Despite the enthusiasm of the producers, the records did not sell and Rodriguez was dropped by his record company after which he basically left the music industry. An American visiting South Africa brought with her a copy of his album(s) and people enjoyed listening to them, so much so that there were local pressings of the records made. As one person puts it, if you walked into a white liberal home in South Africa, you would always find three records: 'Abbey Road', 'Bridge over troubled waters' and 'Cold fact', Rodriguez's first record. Due to the isolation of South Africa and the fact that Rodriguez had been dropped, the audience knew nothing of the artist.

When a South African cd was issued of Rodriguez's second album in the mid 1990s, people began to wonder what had happened to the artist: there were stories circulating that he had committed suicide, which each story varying in the details. After a long search, contact was made between Rodriguez and South Africa and he visited there six times, each time playing several sold out concerts. It's the sort of story where the truth seems more unlikely than the fiction.

Having recently finished rereading Nick Hornby's novel 'Juliet, Naked', I am struck by certain parallels in the story. No one in Hornby's novel ever suggests that Tucker Crowe, the disappearing musician who made the eponymous record, is dead, but that's only because the rabid Internet fans had decided on the basis of virtually no information that a neighbour and friend of Crowe was actually Crowe. In 'Searching for Sugarman', the fans decided - again on the basis of virtually no information - that Rodriguez was dead. There were people in South Africa who thought that the person coming to sing to them must be an impostor - the parallel to the book is how Crowe can prove that he is who he says he is - "there are such things as passports".

According to Wikipedia, the film leaves out the awkward fact that Rodriguez was also very successful in Australia in the 1970's and became aware of it enough to tour there extensively in 1979 and 1981. While it could be argued to be "lying by omission" by implying Rodriguez was completely unaware of his success anywhere in the world, it is perhaps forgivable within the framework of the documentary since the film focuses on his mysterious reputation in South Africa, and the attempts of music historians there to track him down in the mid-90's, who were unaware of his Australian success due to the harsh censorship enacted by the apartheid regime coupled with international sanctions made any communication with the outside world on the subject of banned artists virtually impossible.

I find it interesting to note that although Rodriguez's first tour of South Africa was in 1996 (and was filmed both by his daughter and by media interests in South Africa), the film was only made in 2011.

I saw a note referring to this film a few days ago, asking "where are the royalties?" The original record label owner is asked this during the film and avoids the question, disparaging the interviewer who should be asking questions about the music and not about the money. It's a valid question, though; presumably the South African distributors took their percentage and passed the rest on to the American label owner who spent it on other things and did not keep accounts. There were probably also many bootleg recordings made which profited only the bootleggers. There is also a note at the end of the film that Rodriguez gave away most (all?) of his earnings from the South African tours, so presumably the missing royalties wouldn't have been an issue with him anyway.

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