Director Malik Bendjelloul discusses Searching for Sugar Man
The South African documentary explores the country's fascination with 70s musician Rodriguez
‘It was like a blessed film,’ says Malik Bendjelloul. ‘Every rock you looked under, there was a little gold coin.’ There isn’t a better way to describe Bendjelloul’s debut Searching For Sugar Man, a documentary that boasts what the director calls ‘probably the best story I’ve ever heard in my life – and probably ever will hear’.
He’s not exaggerating, either. Sixto Rodriguez, a Detroit-born folk musician, cut two albums, Cold Fact and Coming From Reality, in the early 1970s. While both flopped and Rodriguez’s career stalled, bootleg copies surfaced in South Africa, where he became a superstar. ‘He was on that level of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan or The Rolling Stones,’ says the Swedish-born Bendjelloul.
The trouble was, in an isolated, Apartheid-driven country, nobody knew who Rodriguez was. Rumour had it that he’d committed suicide on stage, setting himself on fire. Back in the US, Rodriguez fulfilled the prophecy of his debut single ‘I’ll Slip Away’, blissfully unaware his discs had gone platinum in South Africa. ‘It was a once in a lifetime thing,’ says Bendjelloul. ‘It was the time before the internet. It will never happen again.’
Named after Rodriguez’s song ‘Sugar Man’, the film picks up the story when two fans independently decided to research the musician’s background. Like everyone else in South Africa, music critic Craig Bartholomew and record retailer Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman believed Rodriguez was no longer alive, with biographical details sketchy at best. Eventually they teamed up, swapped notes and published a fan website.
After Rodriguez’s eldest daughter, Eva, discovered the site quite by accident, it led to her father making a triumphant return to packed auditoriums in South Africa in 1998. Gig footage, included in the film and shot by Eva, showing hysterical fans simply has to be seen to be believed. ‘This is like a Cinderella story,’ laughs Bendjelloul, ‘but it’s better because it has a better soundtrack.’
Indeed, the fairy tale will continue, thanks to the film, which is finally introducing Rodriguez’s music to his fellow Americans. Set to follow: a 100-city tour in the US, a scheduled appearance on David Letterman and the release of the movie’s soundtrack (essentially a greatest hits disc). ‘Most music careers slowly but surely go down,’ says Bendjelloul. ‘He has this strange coda to his career where everything is going up.’
It’s only what he deserves. As the film shows, the royalties from his overseas sales mysteriously disappeared – though Bendjelloul believes Rodriguez, a man as mellow as his music, didn’t let that embitter him. ‘He studied philosophy and he’s got a broader look on life.’ Curiously, the only person who was unsure about the doc being made was Rodriguez. ‘He’s a very private man, a very shy person.’
Known for playing on stage with his back to the audience – one of several reasons that contributed to his albums flopping in the first place, argues the director – Bendjelloul believes he understands this innate reserve. ‘He’s a singer, he’s not a film star – he always says that. “Malik, I’m audio, you are visual!”’ Well, he’s a film star now.
Searching For Sugar Man is on selected release from Thu 26 Jul. The soundtrack is released on Mon 23 Jul.