Sixto Rodriguez is a poet but didn’t even know it.
Plenty of rock stars have had their stories put on film — either in documentaries or as thinly veiled fiction — but Sixto Rodriguez had to die and come back to life to get his story told.
Rodriguez’s utterly bizarre story, as told in the new documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” begins in the 1970s, when the Detroit musician’s two albums flopped — at least, in the U.S. Through a set of unbelievable circumstances, the singer — who goes by the stage name Rodriguez -— became a rock god in South Africa, unbeknownst to everyone in America — including Rodriguez.
For the film, which opens Friday, Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul interviewed many South Africans who were unaware that Rodriguez wasn’t a superstar back home.
“There was a [South African] guy who told me he had a conversation with an American, and [the South African] said, ‘That would be like imagining the ’70s without the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and Rodriguez!’ And the American said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ”
Any god needs a good myth, and Rodriguez’s was that he was dead. (Rumor had it he either shot himself or set himself on fire on stage.)
“[South Africans] had a guy who was as famous and as dead as Jimi Hendrix,” Bendjelloul says. “Jim Morrison — we know he died in a bathtub in Paris. [Rodriguez], we know he’s dead, but how did he die? There are different stories. So, that’s how it all started — these completely obsessed fans of Rodriguez who wanted to know how he died.”
The funny thing is, Rodriguez wasn’t dead. While all this mythologizing was taking place, he was back in Detroit, working in construction and trying unsuccessfully to get involved in local politics. In the ’90s, word reached South Africa that this legend was actually a living legend.
“It was literally like knowing Elvis Presley was alive,” Bendjelloul says. “He’s that famous [there].” The film shows Rodriguez on tour in South Africa in 1998, playing to thousands of devoted fans who all thought he was dead.
It’s the type of story unlikely to occur today; Rodriguez’s albums, which were passed hand-to-hand in apartheid-era South Africa, are now available on iTunes and can be yours in seconds.
“Maybe this is the last story like this there will ever be,” Bendjelloul says. “It’s kind of sad that this can’t ever happen again, because you like mysteries. But I’m sure there are going to be more mysteries in the world
Landmark Bethesda Row, 7235 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda; opens Fri., $8-$11, 301-652-7273. (Bethesda)