Director Malik Bendjelloul’s brilliant debut documentary, Searching For Sugar Man, tells the uplifting story of how forgotten musician Rodriguez found an unlikely audience among liberals and free-thinkers in Apartheid-era South Africa.
Following an unlikely series of events, the Detroit musician's debut album Cold Fact became the soundtrack for massive social reform in a time of political turmoil - a fact that eluded Rodriguez for many years since his South African fans believed him to be dead folloiwng an on-stage suicide.
Glen Ferris speaks to the director and his very much alive subject about the film, the music and the legacy...
Are you happy with how the film has turned out?
Rodriguez: Oh yes. It’s been winning a lot of awards - at Sundance, it won the People’s Choice Award. I’ve seen it over 30 times, my three daughters are in it, so that’s a real highlight for me. Every time I watch it, I see something new, it’s like music in that respect.
How did the film come about?
Malik: I was looking for a story in 2006 and then I heard about Rodriguez and I was like, ‘Wow!’ It was just this great story that was almost too strange to be true, but of course it was completely real.
Rodriguez's story is pretty unlikely - flop in America, hit in South Africa, thought dead, found alive - when you started making the film, how much did you know about his story?
Malik: I started making the film in 2006 and Rodriguez had come to South Africa for a series of 'comeback' gigs in 1998, so by that point I pretty much knew the whole story. In a way, that added some extra pressure because this incredible tale was there for the telling and I was terrified of screwing it up.
Your music proved to be an inspiration in the fight against Apartheid. How does it feel to have such an impact on the history of a country?
Rodriguez: It’s crazy you know. I was kind of sceptical about how much my music changed anything even during my first tour over there. America has its share of issues, you know Kent State with the National Guard firing on students protesting the war happened at the same time as Apartheid. What’s interesting is that a lot of my audience in South Africa were soldiers. So while people were burning their draft cards in my country, I guess people in South Africa were protesting in their own way by listening to my music.
Were you surprised by the impact on white liberal South Africans?
Malik: Yeah, I was surprised that it was almost taboo to talk about how difficult life was for some white people under Apartheid. I thought it was very impressive there were white people who were fighting for the rights of black people during this time and what was even more incredible was that Rodriguez’s music brought about a real change in society - and he never knew about it at the time. If you speak to the people who were fighting to end Apartheid, they will tell you that Rodriguez got them thinking and they started to believe they could change things for the better.
Did the music you used in the film help to inform the way you told the story?
Malik: There were so many songs to choose from and every single one had a great story to tell. In the end we had lengthy discussions about what we should use. Rodriguez Is a private man, he doesn’t really talk about his personal life, but it’s all there in his lyrics. You really hear who he is through his music, so it was very important to choose the right songs.
Are you worried the press tour will give away one of the biggest things about the film?
Malik: You mean that he’s alive? Well, he is alive. No, I don’t think it matters. In Titanic, you know the ship is going to sink but you watch the movie anyway. I don’t think it takes anything away from the film if people already know he’s alive.
There have been some pretty outlandish stories about your early demise – from shooting yourself on stage to setting yourself on fire during a gig – do you have a favourite one?
Rodriguez: I don’t have a favourite story about my demise. I’m just glad that none of them were true.
How does it feel to be such an inspiration?
Rodriguez: In the movie poster I’m carrying a guitar over my shoulder. I’m not really carrying a guitar, they added that in later. On the album cover for Cold Fact, they told me to cross my legs like that, then they said the shirt I was wearing would fade into the background, so I borrowed a buddy’s T-shirt. So I don’t know about being an inspiration, I guess I just allow myself to be shaped by people. I think it’s good to allow yourself to moulded by others from time to time.
What would you like people to take away from the film?
Malik: The music. Many people who have seen the film ask where they can get the music. When Rodriguez was first released, his style wasn’t that popular but now it’s really saying something to people. Like Nick Drake, who was never big while he was alive, Rodriguez is only really starting to be appreciated a long time after he first started making music.
Searching For Sugar Man is released in cinemas on July 26.
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