Summer Docs: Bigger Than the Beatles

The SummerDocs series will include five presentations
Sixto Diaz Rodriguez, more commonly known as Rodriguez in South Africa, where he is a huge star, is the subject of “Searching for Sugar Man,” a new documentary.

   How often does a true Hollywood ending happen in real life? Maybe more than immediately comes to mind, but still, not that often. The first film in the Hamptons International Film Festival and Guild Hall SummerDocs series, to be shown on Friday, July 6, has that Hollywood ending with an added surreal twist, and it is all a true story.
    Most people in this hemisphere outside of Detroit have never heard of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez. Yet at one point two Motor City music producers, Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore, who had worked with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, among others, thought they’d found the next Bob Dylan when they heard Mr. Rodriguez playing in a local bar in the late 1960s. The two records they produced of the singer, songwriter, and guitarist never went anywhere, however, and he was forgotten. Mr. Rodriguez took menial jobs while he roamed the streets of Detroit, stopping here and there to share his music, a well-known mystery man behind his dark glasses, drawing attention for walking instead of driving in that car-centered city.
    A few years later in a world away, however, his folksy psychedelic funk style made it big in apartheid-era South Africa. There, his lyrics of universal protest caught on with young people, although the repressive regime had banned the album.
    Malik Bendjelloul, the director of the documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” which tells this story, said the bootlegs of Mr. Rodriguez’s first album, “Cold Fact,” made him as big there as Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were everywhere else. According to a press release, the number of records that circulated would have earned the album platinum status had they been sold through the legal marketplace.
    Rumors and legends began to grow around the artist in South Africa, where he was thought to be dead, a victim of violence or a suicide who had set himself on fire while onstage. Finally, two fans set out to find out what had actually happened. Their search, in the late 1990s, took them to Detroit, where they found out that not only was their idol still alive, but he was still playing — which is where the story becomes really interesting.
    Mr. Bendjelloul’s prior documentaries have featured such musicians or bands as Bjork, Sting, Elton John, Rod Stewart, Madonna, Mariah Carey, U2, and Kylie Minogue. He has been casting about for a good story in Africa and South America for a few years, he said. “I found the story eight years after he was rediscovered and the 1998 concert he did in South Africa.” Although he was not on the spot for the events, he was able to put the story together through interviews with the key players and archival footage of the artist and of the country during apartheid.
    Mr. Rodriguez was told his album was bigger there than the Beatles’ “Abbey Road.” He was invited to perform a series of concerts in arenas that seated as many as 30,000 people, about 30 concerts in all over four visits from 1998 to the present. His records have been re-released to positive reviews, and he is now playing at folk festivals and other events in the United States. He is scheduled to be on the David Letterman show soon.
    Mr. Rodriguez seems to take it all in stride. In those huge South African concerts, “he only forgot the lyrics a couple of times, but the audience just sang them for him. They knew them by heart,” said Mr. Bendjelloul, adding that the attention has not gone to the singer’s head. “He is a humble, private man. He has so much integrity it was hard to get him to open up.” 
    Imagining South Africa without Mr. Rodriguez would be like imagining the 1960s without the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, said the documentarian.
    “It’s crazy. He was as big as Dylan over there. If you walk the streets of Cape Town and ask people who Rodriguez is, everyone would know." He said he made the movie because he wanted people to hear his songs and “it’s the best true story I have ever heard.”
    Alec Baldwin will host the screening at 7 p.m. and lead a discussion with the director following the film. Tickets are $22; $20 for Guild Hall members. A limited number of V.I.P. tickets for $100 include a post-party at c/o The Maidstone.
    The SummerDocs series will include five presentations. The next one is July 21, a Saturday, at 8 p.m. with “Detropia.” Mr. Baldwin will discuss the film with its directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady following its screening. This is the fourth annual presentation of this series.