It was probably the most grotesque suicide in rock history,” notes Cape Town record-shop owner Stephen Segerman, recounting how singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez set himself alight on stage during a concert.
Another version, also circulating in South Africa, tells how Rodriguez – whose discs sell there in platinum proportions – shot himself through the head, also on stage.
In Rodriguez’ native USA nobody talks about how he died, for several good reasons.
One, nobody there has heard of him. And two – well, therein lies a fascinating tale…
A labour of love near three years in the making, Malik Bendjelloul’s ace doc tells a story that, if pitched for a fiction feature, would be laughed out of the room.
At the end of the ’60s Rodriguez, living in a slum district of Detroit and performing in scruffy clubs, made two albums that sank without trace.
But two years later in South Africa, then in the grip of apartheid, he was taken up as the voice of resistance.
His discs sold half a million and were de rigueur at right-thinking parties.
Bendjelloul’s film traces how South African rock critic Craig Bartholomew set out to discover the truth about Rodriguez’ death and came up with astounding results.
The film raises two vital questions: why did Rodriguez’ songs – which furnish the soundtrack and prove that comparisons with Bob Dylan are more than justified – make zero impact in the US; and what became of all those South African royalties, of which he never saw a cent?
Neither really gets answered, though we get a strong hint about the royalties when Bartholomew interviews former Sussex owner Clarence Avant; initially waxing sentimental over Rodriguez, Avant turns sulky and dismissive when asked about the missing cash.
Still, in a year crowded with quality docs (The Imposter, Nostalgia For The Light, Being Elmo, Room 237) this is one of the finest: intriguing, illuminating, polished (smartly juggling talking heads with archive and animated interludes) and ultimately moving.
You’d call the rapturous finale a fairytale ending – if it wasn’t actually true.
Extras include an engaging director’s commentary and Making Of.