There is plenty of social science in this unexpected indie hit, which depicts the musical career of Sixto Rodriguez. Rodriguez had two very good albums in the early 1970s but faded into obscurity after failing to gain commercial traction. Unbeknown to the artist, he had become an enduring national celebrity in South Africa. His fans there had no idea he had been working in Detroit as a construction demolitionist (this is before the modern internet, although eventually the internet helped his daughter discover his fame in South Africa, through a fan’s web site). Here is Cass Sunstein on the movie and its portrayal of social and cultural dynamics.
The music is quite appealing — imagine a mix of Donovan, Motown, and low-tech psychedelia, the latter a’la Love. If you are looking to hear or download one song, I recommend the iconic “I Wonder.”
To my ear it sounds naive but charming, but to the South Africans it was revelatory and cool. Furthermore here was a non-Black coming out of Motown (Mexican ancestry but born in the United States), yet with much of the anti-establishment feel of a black artist of the time. The movie never touches on this racial angle as possibly relevant to his popularity; did the South Africans require a non-black version of a black idol? And what does he now symbolize, given that white rule has ended? When they show Rodriguez’s post-apartheid concerts in South Africa, there is not a black face to be seen, as if he has become a nostalgia act in a slightly unsettling manner with the anti-establishment gloss now drained away.
The full story has not yet been told, not even on the American side. From watching the movie, the viewer receives the feeling that Rodriguez fell into a hole circa 1973. The reality is that he was touring Australia as late as 1981 (more here) and even put out a live album from that country in the same year. Music aficionados will know all about the close cultural connections between Australia and South Africa at that time; did Rodriguez really have no idea of his South African following? And what kind of connections was he keeping with the commercial world of music?
I would gladly read a book about how failing artists string out their careers by playing in niche markets or writing for them. For instance Harry Nilsson released some of his late albums in the UK, Australia, and Japan only. Erwin Nyiregyhzai kept giving periodic piano recitals in Japan, well after his prodigy years were over and he supposedly was “lost” and thus before his “rediscovery.” What is a rediscovery anyway?
Here is Rodriguez’s eBook guide to happiness. For pointers I thank Cass Sunstein and also Angus.