The Lost Art in the Search for Sugarman

American singer songwriter Sixto Rodriguez played sold-out shows across Australia last year. What’s surprising about this is that Rodriguez’s first album Cold Fact was released in 1970, his second in 1971. The cold facts are that Rodriguez’s albums, although much lauded by their producers, flopped in the US, and he was dropped by his record label. He faded into oblivion.

Except in two places. In Australia, a Sydney DJ gave a US-despatched copy of Cold Fact airplay, and Rodriguez became a Dylanesque cult hero, his honey voice and songs of sweet protest impossible to forget once heard. His records were released here, and he toured in 1979 and 1981. After the second Australian tour, Rodriguez went home and spent his days working in construction, living in rented accommodation, supporting his three daughters as best he could.

In South Africa and unbeknownst to himself, Rodriguez had also become a cult hero to white South Africans agitating for change to apartheid. The first copy of Cold Fact may have arrived with someone’s girlfriend. It was bootlegged until a local label took it up. Royalties were sent back to the US record company, but the money never reached Rodriguez. He didn’t know he was famous. Cape Town record store owner Stephen Segerman said everyone owned Cold Fact, but it was widely believed that Rodriguez himself had died. Finding a couple of lines in one of the songs referring to a Detroit neighbourhood, in the nineties Segerman and a music journalist went in search of the truth. They used the then newfangled internet and found the singer’s daughter Eva. Rodriguez lived. He toured South Africa to sold-out shows in 1998 and subsequently.

But he continued to be ignored in the US, until his own Cinderella story of fame became the subject of another Cinderella story, that of a young Swedish film-maker Marik Bendjelloul who in 2006 met Segerman and was captured by the idea of a lost artist found. Bendjelloul’s film Searching for Sugarman took five years of obsessive dedication and every cent Bendjelloul had. He started with little hope of success. The film gives new meaning to low-budget. It was shot partly on an iPhone, using a vintage film app, and Bendjelloul did everything from the credits to the illustrations. Although he started with seed-funding from the Swedish Film Institute, he and the Institute-appointed producer fell out, and the Institute withdrew support. But the story had grabbed Bendjelloul like that ancient mariner grabbed the wedding guest. It didn’t let him go, and he excited the interest of British producer Simon Chinn. The film opened at the Sundance Film Festival, won British and American Academy Awards for best documentary film and has been critically and popularly acclaimed. It drew attention to the artist, and Rodriguez is in the midst of a career he might have had.

When Bendjelloul, an exceptionally gifted television reporter with the Swedish broadcaster, started on his film, he didn’t have the neat story I’ve described here. He had the chaos of lived life. Searching for Sugarman is a masterpiece. Rodriguez has said it’s not altogether true to the life he lived. It’s a fairy tale, but we don’t care. We want the fairy tale. “What Rodriguez sings is true and real and it’s his voice,” Bendjelloul said in an interview. “You should do that. You should do it that way. Otherwise there’s no point.” Bendjelloul did it that way, found what was true and real, and it’s his voice. But Bendjelloul took his own life in May last year, stepping off a subway platform in Stockholm into the path of a train. He was 36. Friends and colleagues said he’d struggled with what next – Hollywood calling, choices unlimited – and he’d suffered insomnia, depression. He’d been frightened he’d lost his creativity. But he had not looked like he wanted to end his life, they said.

When an artist who has given something so significant to the world passes, the death is more shocking because of what’s lost to us. With Bendjelloul and with Rodriguez too something has been lost forever, what they might have given the world. It’s more than sad.