Searching for Sugar Man, the outstanding debut documentary of Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul, tells the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story of Rodriguez, a Detroit protest musician whose first two albums flopped in America in the 1970s. In South Africa, however, those records became some of the best-selling albums in the country’s history, and there Rodriguez became a beloved star, in spite of—and further mythologized by—a widespread belief there that he’d killed himself onstage. But he wasn’t dead. Rodriguez was working manual labor in Michigan, totally unaware of his fame—that is, until the late ’90s when a South African music journalist fan set out to write the true story of his “death,” and found a living legend instead. Decades after he’d figured his career a failure, the man once projected by Motown bosses to be bigger than The Beatles launched a triumphant South African tour and finally met sold-out crowds face to face, both audience and performer equally surprised to see each other. The story is colossally feel-good, the type of actual thing that happened to make making art worth pursuing. Check out Searching for Sugar Man when it opens this week in New York and LA, and see Rodriguez performing live if you’re able. Below, read an interview with the film’s director and its enigmatic, hugely endearing star.
The two of you seen an unlikely pair—the young Swede and the elder Detroitsman. Malik, how did you approach Rodriguez? BENDJELLOUL: I first heard his story in ’06, and I first met Rodriguez in ’08. I thought that this was the most beautiful story ever. Before I met Rodriguez I met the other guys involved—the detectives and the producers—and they told me things about Rodriguez that made him almost sound like a mythological character. Like is this really for real? They were talking about him as this shadow, as this drifter—this mystery. Which for a filmmaker makes things exciting. Then you know you have something extraordinary to play with. In the end, everyone is flesh and blood, and of course Rodriguez was flesh and blood, but I understand what they were talking about when they described him that way. He had this kind of integrity and privacy around him that made him impenetrable in a way. You sometimes think I want to know everything and he should tell me everything and just spill out his heart, and Rodriguez didn’t do that, and I think that was beautiful. I think that’s an important part of the story and an important part of this film, really.
Rodriguez, do you think of yourself as a drifter, as a shadow? RODRIGUEZ: No. I wasn’t lost either. I knew exactly where I was. Duncan Cooper, when Malik Bendjelloul came to Detroit, he was this youngblood. I met him in ’08 with his cinematographer, named Camilla. So here’s these two young bloods coming to Detroit and wanting to do this film, and I resisted. I was reluctant. I was kind of skeptical about the entire thing, being that it was so new, so to speak. I thought that he already had the story with the interviews he had done. He had [music producer] Steve Rowland, who’s pretty much got quite a career, and he had Dennis Coffey in the film, who’s one of the best guitar players on the planet. I have such an ordinary life that I didn’t feel that it could play out [in the movie]. In the end, I challenged him to come to Detroit in July or in February, because that’s two extreme times of Detroit weather. It’s when the riots occurred. It’s like in New York when it gets so hot that people get out of the buildings and just mill around. And then he came in February, where there’s no one outside, where the only ones out there are walkers, so he took the challenge. They were filming in the snow and I realized I better get into this, and I was glad I did.
Malik, I read that you worked on the film for four years and—correct me if I’m wrong—largely without outside financing. BENDJELLOUL: I did get financing for the first year and the first travels, but then the last three years, I didn’t get a cent. And I hadn’t got a salary for the first year, so I never got a salary for four years. For a while I almost gave up. I realized I can’t finish this movie. But then I was like, Ah, I’m going to try anyway. This was why in the end I made animations and the music and the editing myself. I didn’t want to do that. It wasn’t like this megalomaniac idea. I just didn’t have money.
Rodriguez, in the film, after you play these sold-out shows in South Africa and are treated like a star there, it seems like a given that you’ll return home to Detroit, and back to obscurity. Was that a difficult decision? RODRIGUEZ: A lot of people in South Africa said, “Why don’t you just move here?” But I’m based out of Detroit. It’s like I’m born and bred in Detroit. My family’s there. I’ve never thought about moving. In another time zone, you always wonder what’s happening back home. Thinking, Hey, what time is it in Detroit? At least for me. It was a life-changing event, but you gotta be from somewhere, you know, so I’m from Detroit.
In the film we learn you used to perform with your back to the audience. What has changed? RODRIGUEZ: Oh yeah, I do face the audience more so than I did at the beginning. Some people’s styles are different. I have my eyes closed most of the times I’m doing the song. I don’t eyeball the audience in the sense, it’s not a confrontational kind of thing to perform. If I’m with a band, I listen to them playing. I’m more focused on the song, to deliver a good song as opposed to a lot of interaction, but I do interact with the audience now. When they yell out to me, I yell back at ‘em and stuff like that. I swing my guitar around and sometimes hit the bass player, ‘cause I’m moving around. You know it’s close quarters up there. If I have turned my back on audience it’s not in the sense of ignoring them, I’m just more into the tune.
My style approaches songs as a genre in music that à la “Masses of War” by Bob Dylan or “Ohio” by Neil Young or “Eve of Destruction” by Barry McGuire, “I Am a Rock” by Paul Simon. In the ’60s and ’70s those songs helped us all to get through that turbulent time of cities ablaze, and the youngbloods burning their draft cards, and resisting the draft, going to Canada, or the shootings at Kent State where the students were protesting the war and they shot into the student body. And the thing is, so they were in South Africa. My fan base are Afrikaans, and they were defending their country at the borders and in Angola and in Namibia. As I understand, there were soldiers who traded out cassettes. Once, a soldier came up to me and said, “We made love to your music; we made war to your music,” and he gave me a little thing around my neck. It meant a lot to me. And that helped them get through pretty much like the ones I mentioned [in America].
Are you still doing construction and demolition work? RODRIGUEZ: You never threw away your work clothes. But I don’t hire out as a laborer anymore. As I started getting these offers to tour, I pretty much realized I have to do the music, and that’s what I really wanted to do. It’s called reentry, I guess. But there’s no shame in hard work.