The nominations: Documentary Feature
The film: In early 1970’s Detroit, Sixto Rodriguez, whose stage name was solely his last name, made two folk/rock n’ roll style albums à la contemporary Bob Dylan that when virtually unnoticed in the United States. Unbeknownst to him, his music developed a massive following in the country of South Africa. Believed by these distant fans to be dead, Cape Town fans Stephen “Sugar” Segerman (named so for a Rodriguez song) set out to discover the true fate of the musical voice of their generation. There had been rumors he had committed elaborate suicide; some said he lit himself afire on stage in front of a crowd, some say he shot himself in the head in response to a belligerent audience member. Determined to find answers, Segerman enlisted the help of Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul and journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom to track down the truth. Knowing not much other than Rodriguez being American, the men searched (this is all before the internet) and came up with two big clues. One was tracking down where the profits of overseas album sales went to and the other was identifying through the lyrics of the song “Inner City Blues” that Rodriguez lived in Detroit. To their amazement they found their hero very much alive, living in anonymity as a day laborer in an apartment with a fire-burning stove. Encouraged to give a comeback tour for his fans in South Africa, Rodriguez found the fame and adoration he always deserved if only about thirty years late.
The odds: The rediscovering and resurrection of Rodriguez as a notable musician may have happened over fifteen years ago but that hasn’t stopped everyone who comes across this amazing tale from calling it this year’s Cinderella story. Its true you don’t come across many feel-good documentaries, the tradecraft of non-fiction film having been reduced to assaulting the world with real world brutalities instead being just as potentially interesting and energizing as fictional cinema. But this story of a bunch of fans who revived their country’s hero as well as awakening the rest of the world to his understated music and transcendent lyrics. The format is clever: director Bendjelloul follows around its investigative super-fans and lead up to a second act of snarky and entertaining interviews with record execs and whoever else reminiscing over the greatness of this mysterious genius. We don’t get to meet Rodriguez until act three, but the built anticipation pays off as you see Rodriguez arrive and perform to sold out arenas in South Africa, cool tempered, magnanimous, and humble. The film does feel lacking though. The focus of the film is the journey of the fans and their discovery and the triumphant return, but we get to see very little as to the life of this soulful and soft-spoken old rock n’ roller. This lack of dimension may stir voters to opt for the rousing AIDS activism doc How to Survive a Plague or the staggering expose The Invisible War about women who are sexually assaulted by their comrades while serving in the military. Either way, this movie is so light and happy and awe inspiring that it could just win on glowing charisma alone.