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Rodriguez lies low after 'Sugar Man' Oscar win as friends, neighbors rejoice

10:18 PM, Feb 25, 2013   |    comments
Musician Sixto Rodriguez attends the National Board of Review Awards gala at Cipriani 42nd St. on Tuesday Jan. 8, 2013 in New York. / Evan Agostini/Invision/AP
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DETROIT (Detroit Free Press) - When the best documentary winner was announced Sunday night, the crowd at the Old Miami erupted in cheers.

"We did it!" That was the mood among those celebrating the win for "Searching for Sugar Man," according to bar manager Bridget Volpe.

"A lot of them were actually neighbors of (Sixto) Rodriguez and have known him for 40 odd years," Volpe said of the Oscar viewing party.

Today, the glow of the "Sugar Man" victory lingers for a city more used to sucker punches than good international buzz.

"It's an 'everyone's happy' kind of thing," said Volpe. "It's one for Detroit."

"Sugar Man" is Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul's film about Rodriguez, a Detroit singer-songwriter whose two early-1970s albums made him a mysterious icon in apartheid South Africa. At the time, he was living in the Motor City and working as a laborer, not aware of his mega-fame an ocean away.

Backstage at the Oscars, the press was searching for answers to Rodriguez's whereabouts.

Bendjelloul told reporters that Rodriguez was "kind of tired" after touring South Africa for two weeks. His last scheduled performance there was Feb. 21.

He also doesn't want to take credit for the film's success.

"He's genuinely a humble man, and he wanted to stay at home in Detroit watching television," explained producer Simon Chinn.

On Monday, Sony released a statement from Rodriguez that expressed his sentiments, but sounded too canned for his poetic, mercurial style.

"Congratulations to Malik Bendjelloul, Sony Pictures Classics and the whole 'Searching for Sugar Man' team on the Oscar win," it read.

The 70-year-old Rodriguez deserves all the accolades he can get, according to his friend Jerome Ferretti, a Detroit artist who appears in "Sugar Man."

"He's a great guy. He's so humble," said Ferretti, who met Bendjelloul at the Bronx Bar at 1 a.m. and stood outside for his filmed interview. He jokes that he got two vodkas on the rocks for participating.

Rodriguez doesn't talk much about himself, but is interested in what other creative people are doing, according to Ferretti. "He exudes love for the city and his fellow artists," Ferretti said.

John Linardos, a longtime pal, says the fact that Rodriguez wasn't at the Oscars is "totally him."

"I'm very happy for him and his family, for him, at his age, to get his due," says Linardos, president of Motor City Brewing Works.

Employees of Motor City Brewing Works were interviewed for the film. The brew pub is a place fans from South Africa started calling in their quest to find the elusive and phoneless singer. For a long time in that country, Rodriguez was rumored to be deceased.

"Literally for a couple of months it was a pain in the ass," says Linardos with a laugh, explaining how he would have to carry messages to Rodriguez's house.

Rodriguez remains a familiar and beloved face in his hometown. "Anybody who's part of the art scene at all loves running into him, looks up to him," says Cait Little, one of his neighbors in the Cultural Center area. "And it's kind of cool when you look out your window and it's like, 'Dude, Rodriguez is raking his leaves.'?"

Rodriguez resumes an international tour in mid-March and then will return to the U.S., including a show just announced Monday: May 18 at the Masonic Temple Theatre in Detroit. Seats are $35 and $45 and will go on sale at 10 a.m. Friday through Ticketmaster. He's also scheduled to appear June 22 at the Traverse City Wine & Art Festival.

"Sugar Man" is available on DVD, video-on-demand and on the screen at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak.

Detroiters like Eusebia Aquino-Hughes are celebrating both the man and what he represents. For her, "Sugar Man" represents the many Latino artists whose talents are overlooked in America.

She saw Rodriguez perform locally when she was a teen and has seen the movie four times. And she watched the Oscars for only one reason.

"When I saw the win, that's all I needed to see," she said.

Contact Julie Hinds: 313-222-6427 or jhinds@freepress.com

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