Well, this one’s about the ‘70s rock star Rodriguez. You’ve never heard of him? No, me neither. But that’s probably because you’re not from South Africa. So Rodriguez is from SA, then? Well, no, he’s from Detroit actually. He once recorded a couple of modest rock/folk-ish albums in the James Taylor mould (on Spotify), but they both bombed big time in the USA, so he faded out of the music scene.
Except that wasn’t the end of his story, for amazingly he became a big star in SA. And I mean big, Elvis big, really. It seems that not much musically got in or out of SA during those ‘70s apartheid years, but the two Rodriguez albums made it in and, by word of mouth and cassette copies, made it. He became a big star in absentia, and his albums sold in hundreds of thousands, which was a lot for SA.
So, back to the start of the doc. We meet some talking head fans in SA who think that Rodriguez died a long time ago, rumoured to be either by self-immolation or gunshot suicide on stage after an especially average gig. Cue to nice shots of Cape Town. One talking head has a vinyl record store with copies of the albums to sell; another head, a journalist, decides to find out what did actually happen to Rodriguez, planning to write up the suicide story in all its gory detail. It’s much easier to find out stuff now that Botha has gone and the Internet has arrived. The story of their search is the story of this remarkable doc. No spoilers here, so if you want to find out what happened to Rodriguez, you should go and see.
The film could be subtitled: “how to do a good documentary”, because it’s all there: talking heads; time-lapse sunrises; ‘70s B+W prints; scratchy old vids with fading colours and those squiggly lines; historical contexts (remember them?), and a great narrative line. It seems like fiction at times, except that you couldn’t fake a doc that well, even though I’m sure there is a deal of poetic licence. In some ways I wanted it to be a spoof, because it skilfully skates the fine line between the cliché and the quintessential. Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul has created an engaging masterpiece, fully deserving of its prizes at the Sundance Film Festival.