Rodriguez is seen in "Searching for Sugarman." (Sony Pictures Classics )
Sundance Film Festival attendees went gaga for the documentary “Searching for Sugarman,” the improbable story of the Mexican American musician Rodriguez.
After a pair of promising but overlooked folk albums in the early 1970s, Rodriguez seemed to disappear from the musical map; many even believed he committed suicide.
But Rodriguez is alive and well, and the movie has rekindled interest in the soulful singer. As Rodriguez has brought the film to a host of film festivals — most recently at a spirited Los Angeles Film Festival screening Tuesday — he has caught the attention of some major personalities.
24 Frames has learned that Rodriguez will play “The Tonight Show With David Letterman” in mid-August, marking a striking turnaround for a man who until recently had been working construction, his musical career a distant memory. A person familiar with the musician’s plans as well as Rodriguez himself confirmed the appearance. A Letterman spokesman did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
It will be a busy summer for the Dylan-esque singer. In July, the 70-ish Rodriguez will play his first-ever gig at the Newport Folk Festival, the iconic Rhode Island gathering that this year will feature veterans like Jackson Browne and up-and-comers such as the Alabama Shakes. He’ll also play a gig on the main stage at this summer's Jersey Folklore, a festival on the British isle of Jersey, sharing the bill with Van Morrison.
At the LAFF screening, Rodriguez sounded humble and grateful for all the attention that’s come his way, telling the audience that he initially was hesitant about stepping back in the spotlight with the documentary. “I was reluctant and I was skeptical and I resisted a bit,” he said before playing a song for the enamored audience.
Rodriguez's newfound popularity recalls the unexpected bookings and fame that found the Canadian '80s metal group Anvil after they were featured in their own acclaimed documentary. After premiering at Sundance in 2008, "Anvil": The Story of Anvil" gained a cult following and led to the band hitting the road on a reunion tour that included an appearance at the Meadowlands with AC/DC.
Set for a July 27 release, "Searching for Sugarman" also tracks Rodriguez’s unlikely popularity in South Africa, where black Africans saw in his politically inflected ballads a message for their own struggle against apartheid. (Rodriguez was never aware of how big he had hit it there; it's one of those eye-opening pre-Internet kinds of stories.)
The South African strand is one of several compelling turns in the film, which also includes a look at what happened to the revenue from South African album sales, which mysteriously evaporated. Directed by first-time Swedish helmer Malik Bendjelloul, the film won both an audience and a jury prize at Sundance this year. While none of the songs from its soundtrack will be eligible for an Oscar, expect attention in the documentary category when awards season rolls around.
Although an upcoming soundtrack will feature Rodriguez’s music, he said he’s not concentrating on writing new material. Instead, he’s focusing on performing his older songs as well as covers, which he thinks is an underappreciated art.
Rodriguez, who lives in the same downtown Detroit home he’s occupied for decades, had a wry attitude at the LAFF screening about his surprising musical longevity. “I’ve done the ‘40s, the ‘50s, the ‘60s, the ‘70s, the ‘80’s, the ‘90s, the ‘00s,” he said. “And I’m working on the 10s.”
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Times staff writer Reed Johnson contributed to this report.