Rodriguez not just for wrinklies
Once in a blue moon I turn movie reviewer. This is one such blue moon.
For my birthday last week, Wife took me to the bioscope and, because it was my birthday, I was allowed to choose the film.
For once I chose wisely: Searching for Sugar Man.
In case you haven't yet seen this very South African film and it's still showing in your area, don't bother reading the rest of this column. Go and see Searching for Sugar Man right now. Bunk work if there's a day-time screening. It is that good.
If you're still with me, let me explain. Maybe it's got to do with the fact that I missed most of South Africa in the 1990s, but the story of Rodriguez, the Hispanic-American rock singer who completely and utterly flopped in his homeland yet in 1998 was brought to the African country where he had been "bigger than Elvis", for decades was largely news to me.
(I spent almost the whole of the 1990s overseas. I missed our first democratic election, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations. The whole lot. And I missed Rodriguez's triumphant "homecoming". )
Of course I'd heard about the Detroit rocker whose songs were so much part of my youth - whose anti-establishment anthems struck such a chord with those of us born in the 1960s - being down on his luck and being unrecognised back home. But I simply had no idea that he had performed in South Africa to such acclaim.
Searching for Sugar Man tells how two (now) slightly wrinkly fans set out to find out about this musical enigma.
And that is what this splendid film is all about: two white middle-aged men trying to figure out who the heck Rodriguez was (at the time South African urban legend held that, distressed at his artistic failure, Rodriguez had topped himself on stage). The film tells the story of how they discovered that he was very much alive - and had no idea that, half a world away, he was not just a star but a superstar.
And so we meet up with the now slightly decrepit Rodriguez, a mellow grandpa rather than the angry young man we all had in our minds, shuffling through the snow of a bleak midwinter Motown, and we get treated to footage of 1970s Cape Town and of his victorious, celebratory 1998 tour.
And Stephen Segerman (Sugar Man to his friends) and Craig Bartholomew tell their story.
It's not a particularly intricate story but it's a heart-warming, darn good yarn, all overlaid with those unforgettable tunes.
And, lo and behold, there is the lovely Willem Möller, who used to sub-edit the Sunday Times next to me, talking to the camera about playing with Rodriguez.
I vaguely remember once asking the self-effacing Willem (a world-class sub, by the way) about something I'd heard: that he had once played with Rodriguez and, I swear, he told me that, "Ja, I jammed with him". And left it at that.
And, because I had missed the 1990s, I pictured the two meeting at someone's flat in Yeoville or Brixton and they played a song or two for the appreciation of a dozen friends. Now I learn the truth: that Willem was on stage with this legend in front of thousands and thousands of screaming fans.
The film features remarkably coherent interviews with Detroit bricklayers and ex-builders who knew the real Rodriguez and, of course, interviews with the man himself. And his three wonderfully erudite daughters speak lovingly of their father, about how he might have been terribly poor but how he made sure they got a good, well-rounded education.
Their words and the way they carry themselves speak volumes about their father and the kind of man and father he is.
And Segerman talks about how, thanks to the Rodriguez phenomenon, he gave up being a Johannesburg jeweller to live his dream of owning a vinyl shop in Cape Town. The film is a triumph of simple, honest-to-goodness storytelling, and of entrepreneurship.
On my birthday outing the cinema was decently full; mostly with slightly wrinkly white people. As the credits rolled we all sat tight as the final song played.
Whether you're white or black, and whether you're wrinkly or not, go and see Searching for Sugar Man. It's a grand, uplifting bit of film. And that's a cold fact.