This is a wonderful documentary with two giant holes in it.
First a synopsis: A mysterious superstar composer/singer named Rodriquez sells many hundreds of thousands of albums over 25 years in South Africa. His lyrics are insightful social observation and his melodies are gorgeous. Varied gory rumors about his suicide on stage at his last concert explain the fact that there are no new albums. A journalist and a record seller team up to try to find the truth about his death, only to discover him living in Detroit, a manual laborer, community activist, and father of three daughters. They bring him to South Africa for sell-out concerts.
Here are the two holes:
1) While Rodriquez is described as bigger than Elvis and much bigger than the Rolling Stones in South Africa, not once is it mentioned that they mean white South Africa. None of the South African talking heads in the film nor any of the tens of thousands of adoring fans – many of them young people of high school and college age – at the 1990s South African concerts resurrecting Rodriquez appear to be Black South African. (Time check: Mandela was released from prison in 1990.) Rodriquez was at his most popular during apartheid, of course, so there may be many explanations as to why he was unknown in the Black communities, but still, I found it bizarre this has gone unremarked in the film and in reviews.
Aside: I spoke to a South African friend who said, “But South Africa was a white country then.” She was from a privileged but progressive white South African family. But I couldn’t accept that. Perhaps that’s how she saw it from her perspective and experience in the bubble of power in belly of the beast. But even in high school in the early 60s in Pittsburgh, I had seen Miriam Makeba perform and I knew the dancing singing magic of mass anti-apartheid demonstrations in South Africa. I never in my life, from here, pictured South Africa as a “white country.” But that seems to be the image in the heads of the filmmakers when they reference the country.
2) Rodriquez is strangely absent from the film. He is apparently a “difficult interview,” but we don’t even get to hear him sing more than a few notes now (although he is touring, and this Fall sold out his London and Boston shows). The stupendous soundtrack is of his famous early albums. His daughters describe him as involved in justice struggles, even of running for office, but we don’t get to hear him speak of his concerns. We see him walking in the snow a lot and living in a hovel. His daughters speak about him in remarkable terms and his work buddies talk about their disbelief in the secret music life of this laborer who does the most unskilled of jobs. But we don’t get to know him today in his own words and voice.
As wonderful and weird a story this is, I’m left dissatisfied.
Here's the trailer:
And for a special treat, here's Miriam Makeba singing Pata Pata (1967):