It's an unlikely story in many ways, but an uplifting one. An extremely talented songwriter and performer is spotted playing in a Detroit bar and gets a record deal with Sussex Records. He records two albums at the beginning of the 1970's. They get excellent reviews, but sell zilch. Sussex drops him from their roster. The artist returns to his day job as a construction labourer. It's a sad tale, but not an uncommon one in rock n' roll history.
At this stage, I would point out that if you really want to enjoy the full element of surprise in the film, you should stop reading now, avoid viewing the trailer and rent/buy the movie. Otherwise, proceed.
What happens next is what makes this story remarkable. Unbeknown to the artist, his albums start selling in large numbers in South Africa, to fans who are opposed to the apartheid regime and find in his honest and yearning delivery a kindred spirit. His first album sells an estimated half-a-million copies, a massive number for that country at that time. There is no information available about him there, so myths start to spring up. The rumour flies around that he committed suicide on stage, some say by shooting himself, some say by setting himself on fire. The lack of information leads two fans to set out on a mission to find out what happened to their musical hero.
The tale that unravels is a fascinating one, as the artist in question, Rogriguez, becomes aware of his reputation. We also encounter some of the people who were involved in making those records, each of them still aware that they had created something special, and still bemused by their seeming lack of success.
The music itself is fantastic, and I will write about it in more depth in a separate feature. However, what really struck me more than anything in this film is the way in which Rodriguez seems to have no rancour whatsoever about his musical career not originally working out in the way he had hoped. He comes across as the kind of guy whose glass is never half empty, one of life's true optimists. When he eventually takes to the stage in a large auditorium, in front of a sell out crowd, his calm demeanour and unassuming presence speak a thousand words. It's a truly enjoyable tale, told well.
Now, the caveats. In the grand scheme of things they be considered minor, but are still worth considering. Firstly, Rodriguez wasn't as missing-in-action as the film would have you believe, as he enjoyed a sizeable following in Australia in the late 70's, toured there twice and released a live album there entitled "Rodriguez Alive", its name making fun of the death myths that had arisen around him. Still, this is the story of Rodriguez's relationship with South Africa specifically, so this is forgiveable.
Second caveat: I did feel that Sussex Records boss Clarence Avant was given a bit of an unfair grilling about the money element. Overseas licensing deals for independent labels could be very complex back then and, since Rodriguez's records only took off in South Africa in the mid-70's, Sussex had likely already folded by the time any royalties would have come in. I suspect they would have gone towards paying off any of the label's creditors. Unfair? Yes, but a harsh reality of the music business.
Still, those gripes aside, it is a film that reinforces the notion that if an artist really is good at what they do, they will find their audience and recognition eventually. It doesn't always happen in their lifetime, but Rodriguez has fortunately lived to see what he has meant to those who love his work. All in all, this is life affirming stuff.
PURPLE RATING: 8/10
South Africa/Sweden/UK/USA 2012 - Red Box Films/Passion Pictures
Certificate: 12A (UK)