There’s an engaging enthusiasm about Malik Bendjelloul that seems so apparent that it almost comes as a bit of a surprise to hear something negative from him, “I don’t really like music documentaries.” It’s even more curious considering the young Swede is the Director behind the music documentary of the year. The Mediterranean looking Scandinavian sees himself primarily as a storyteller and it was the strength of the story at the centre of his debut feature Searching for Sugar Man that took him from obscurity to being the toast of Sundance where his film picked up two awards and became the first film bought at the festival. He may even have resurrected the career of a forgotten great of 70’s rock in the process.
Rodriguez is the greatest rock icon you’ve never heard and the subject of Malik Bendjelloul’s film. Far from being a bloated tale of the success and excess of an established household name squeezing the last drops of ‘unseen footage’ out of a tired story and onto a fanboy audience, the secrecy that surrounds Rodriguez is the films appeal and the feature would never have come to light had Bendjelloul not chanced on an incredible story while in South Africa. “I had spent six months travelling around Africa looking for a story.” He explains, “Then I heard this one and it was like, wow! That’s the best story I’ve ever heard!”
Told to him by a record store owner and Rodriguez enthusiast Stephen Segerman, he heard the remarkable story of the enigmatic musician – a Detroit resident where he worked as a labourer in construction. Discovered by well established producers (at the time working with the likes of Marvyn Gaye and Stevie Wonder) Rodriguez recorded and released two albums, Cold fact in 1970 and Coming From Reality the following year. Those involved in the process were convinced of its brilliance, believing Cold Fact to be the masterpiece of their collective careers. Big things were promised to Rodriguez but none were to materialise and he soon sank without a trace, selling little to nothing in America. Nothing remarkable there – for every band that makes it there’s a thousand cutting their losses playing weddings and pubs across the world – but it’s the second stage of this mythical career where things take a turn for the sensational.
Somehow a bootleg copy of Cold Fact found its way to Apartheid-era South Africa, laying roots for unprecedented success ensuring Rodriguez became bigger than the likes of Elvis Pressley and The Rolling Stones. Due to the cultural boycott on South Africa and their cocooned lifestyle in their cut-off country, little was known of Rodriguez and reports of a grotesque onstage suicide began to emerge, “He was as dead and as famous as Jimi Hendrix” as Bendjelloul puts it. Segerman and fellow muso Craig Bartholomew set out to discover more about their elusive, much loved and presumed dead hero and hearing their tale, the storyteller instinct in Malik Bendjelloul knew he had his film. “If you have a wonderful story, people are happy to hear it. The more times your jaw drops when you hear a story the better it is this one my jaw was dropping all the time.”
Leaving South Africa enthralled and determined to start making what was initially to be a half hour TV documentary to be shown in his native Sweden, Bendjelloul became hesitant about listening to Rodriguez “It couldn’t possibly live up to my love for the story but I listened and it was great, some of the most beautiful songs ever to be on record I think. The superlatives work.” And in South Africa especially, there are certainly superlatives abound when it comes to Rodriguez. “He is considered better and as popular as Dylan and The Doors, these are rock Gods, he is not just a popular guy, no, and he is the one.”
It was after hearing the records that the Bendjelluol too became convinced and knew he had enough to transform the 30 minute TV piece into his first feature length film, succeeding in unearthing a musical great.
Rodriguez’s music sounds so encased in the time, so much like other important voices of the time that his disappearance into obscurity becomes hard to comprehend. “That is the real mystery” agrees Bendjelloul, “it isn’t why is he big in South Africa but why isn’t he big in America.”
His film touches on the parallels in these cross-continent countries that acted in opposite ways to determine Rodriguez’s career trajectory. Unknown too many outside the bubble of Apartheid South Africa, there was a strong white liberal counter-movement that opposed the divided regime and this is where Rodriguez’s songs of struggle first found an audience.
“Rodriguez sang ‘the system’s gonna fall soon to an angry young tune’ almost aiming at musicians saying ‘you can do stuff about this’ and they did – the first movement was white guys picking up guitars and singing songs against Apartheid and they all said Rodriguez was the guide for that so he was kind of changing a country without even knowing where he was aiming!”
America too was undergoing a Civil Rights movement but here in his native country, Rodriguez was unable to find an audience and while mainstream America had found room for white and black artists it still struggled to accept any blurred lines. “If you had a Mexican name like Rodriguez you should be doing Mexican music, mariachi or something. He was seriously challenging the white rock scene and at that time in the US that was a road you weren’t allowed to go down.” His Latino name was unlikely to break into mainstream commercial radio in America and crucially that determined his US fate. It’s a fate that Bendjelloul is understandably optimistic will be viewed far differently now, “Hopefully the music is going to be re-evaluated and becomes something that people know of, one of those stories that everybody knows of because it’s one of the great artists of the 70’s, he really is. He’s never played to more than 300 people in the U.S now he’s going to be a legend there”. And as proof, if needed, he adds “he’s playing Letterman next week!”.
Perhaps there are similar redemptive qualities to Bendjelloul own story making this film. Turned away from all financiers he had to go it alone, working for 5 years on an all consuming debut film. “I never got a cent so all these things – original score, animation, editing – I did on my kitchen table. I wanted to, otherwise it’d never be finished. All the funding dropped out, it was a mess, it was horrible. I fought for 4 years to make this the way I wanted it.” When he finally received help from Man on Wire producers Simon Chinn and John Battsek, it was his D.I.Y process that surprisingly they were keen to keep with the majority coming from circumstance “the idea was to have a lot of that (animation and landscape shots) since he wasn’t famous so there was no footage and his family didn’t have a video camera there was nothing really to start with.”
Far from being bruised by the exhaustive process, Bendjelloul remains characteristically upbeat and adamant that should be as little studio collaboration as possible to truly tell your story, “It is nice to have friends and be able to talk to someone, maybe I should but there’s something very nice about it on your own, you have your kitchen table and you do the whole thing and you do it your way, everything you want. Also that’s why you do a film, otherwise you can work somewhere for someone and get a salary but this way you don’t get any money or anything but what you do get is the feeling that this is your baby.”
So can B too claim a small victory against the bigger industry giant? “Yeah it’s fantastic, it’s insane. There are so many people opposed to you who almost try and make it not happen and now it’s opening in over 100 cities in the US and sold in 25 countries.” After such staggering success it’s not surprising that the idea of travelling the world once more for another story sounds appealing “Maybe I will, it’s a very pleasurable way of research.” As it turns out, it’s also an incredibly effective one.
Searching For The Sugar Man will be released in UK&Ireland by Studio Canal On July 26th.