The director and reluctant star of Searching for Sugar Man chat about their remarkable journey.
Music documentary-cum-detective-thriller Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of legendary Detroit musician Rodriguez, whose disappearance from the music scene after the release of his second album was plagued with violent conspiracy theories in South Africa, a country that had adopted his songs as the soundtrack to the anti-apartheid movement.
Unknown in his homeland, but bigger than Elvis in SA when a bootleg copy of his debut LP 'Cold Facts' found its way into Cape Town, Malik Bendjelloul’s film charts a story first uncovered by record shop owner Stephen Segerman, a Rodriguez fan determined to discover the truth about what happened to this lost '70s icon. LWLies caught up with the director and his reluctant star recently to chat about their remarkable journey.
LWLies: How did you first get in touch with Stephen Segerman and hear about Rodriguez’s story?
Bendjelloul: In 2006, I was travelling around Africa and South America looking for short, seven minute stories for Swedish television, where I used to work. I found five or six, but this was by far the best one I came across. I thought this was the best story I’d ever heard in my life. When Stephen Segerman first told me about Rodriguez, it was a jaw-dropping tale and I knew I had something special.
So how did you first make contact with Rodriguez?
MB: It wasn’t until a few years later that I met him for the first time. I met his daughter on my first trip, she’s living in South Africa, then I met Rodriguez in 2008. I didn’t film an interview the first time I met him as I knew that he likes his privacy, so I didn’t want to interfere too much. He’s used to performing to an audience, he’s not the kind of guy who’s used to spilling everything on camera.
Were you immediately on board the idea of a film being made about you, or did you take some convincing?
Rodriguez: I was sceptical about the whole deal. It wasn’t until the last few weeks, when it was announced it’d be at Sundance that I said, 'Let’s go get this done'. I had to ask myself if I was serious about wanting to get out there again. Malik was just a sweetheart though. He’s this self-made director who’s been working on this for five years and I’m a self-taught musician. This experience has been like getting a degree in filmmaking. It’s such a great film, the things he does with the animation, the way he generates suspense. It’s really made by just two people, Malik and Camilla (Skagerström, cinematographer), so you can’t get much more basic than that.
As incredible as Rodriguez’s story is, five or six years getting your film made is a story in itself. Can you talk a little about the process of getting the film off the ground?
MB: Yeah, it took a long time. It was very hard to get funding. Most of the stuff I made on my kitchen table; the music, the editing, the illustrations. I thought that I’d bring in professionals, but I just couldn’t afford it, which is why it looks the way it does [laughs].
So how did [producer] Simon Chinn get involved?
MB: He got involved in March, a year before Sundance. He’s an incredible producer, he made Man on Wire, a film I really admired. I thought he’d really understand this story too, it’s a great slice of history with a real climax, a really powerful ending, just like Man on Wire, so I really hoped he’d get it.
R: And of course I do all my own stunts in this film too.
So when did you first meet Stephen?
R: Well, he’s the real hero of the story. He was in New York, about eleven hours’ drive away from me, and he came to Detroit to show me the CD. 1982 was the CD’s introduction, but I never saw one until 1996. He told me the story, but I was sceptical.
How did you feel when you first heard about the impact of your music in South Africa?
R: Just complete disbelief. Then you see the crowds and you realise there might be something to it.
What happened in the period between being dropped by your label and finally going to South Africa?
R: I went back to work, renovating roofs and buildings. Hard labour, that kind of thing.
What are you hoping the success of the film is going to do for your music career now? You’re going to be reaching a much larger audience than you ever have previously.
R: Yeah man, now it’s global. It’s a whole new phase. The film using my songs is definitely gonna help. Sony have picked up the soundtrack, so it looks like my music might actually be heard.
Are you writing again? Are we going to get a third Rodriguez album?
R: Well, I’m writing again, but right now I’m just following the film.
How did you start working with your great cinematographer, Camilla Skagerström?
MB: I was introduced by my former producer. She’s great, she has a fantastic eye, taking hours just to set up her images for the interviews.
R: She won some awards, right?
MB: Yeah, she won the Jury prize at Cannes. She’s doing very well.
There are some terrific shots in the film, especially those sweeping crane shots. Were they collaboratively planned in advance, or did she decide on those?
MB: Those weren’t from her. I hired a crane-girl called Samantha who set those up. They look really impressive and everyone says, 'What amazing production values!' but really it was just a question of hiring a crane for a day for $1,000. It adds a lot to the film though when you use them.
R: Production values! I’m learning all these new terms.
MB: The film really is very primitively made, so if you think it has production values, then that’s great.
R: Those sweeping views of South Africa were really something.
MB: Cape Town is one of the most beautiful places in the world, so it’s pretty easy to make a shot look good there.
One of the best sequences in the film is the interview with Motown producer Clarence Avant. What were both of your experiences like working with him? He seems very defensive in the film, was it a difficult interview?
MB: Yeah, it was difficult, but to be honest, I liked him quite a lot. He was a very fun guy, he had a lot of energy and he loved Rodriguez, he still has his CDs in his car. It was a very old contract, so it’s difficult to know exactly what happened to all the money. I could only ask questions and use the answers I got.
Are you interested in finding out the answers to those questions?
R: Keenly. But he’s the guy that started me out, so I really owe him a lot. I call him ‘The Pharoah’, he’s so high up there amongst all the high-rollers. I only knew the first part of the story, I don’t know what happened next. I didn’t believe there was any money because I hadn’t heard the rest of the story at the time.
Both in terms of filmmaking and music, the story within the film and that of making it must have taught you both a lot. What advice would you pass along to young musicians and documentary makers?
MB: I think that the way Rodriguez did it is the best way. Many people told him, 'You should change this and that, you shouldn’t use those lyrics in that song, you should change your name to something more American-sounding', and he didn’t, he said, 'That’s not who I am'. Which is perhaps why didn’t have his due success in America in the '70s, but it’s also the reason why in South Africa, people didn’t just like him, they loved him. He’s the greatest artist ever for a lot of people. As an artist you need to keep your integrity, it’s reflected inside your songs, that truth. For filmmakers it’s the same thing, you should do what you want to do and not care what other people think. It may take longer, it may take forty years, but it’ll be worth it.
R: I’d like to quote John Schaeffer from the New Yorker. He says that for country music, all you need is three chords and the truth. I enjoy music, and I enjoy the exchange, the cultural exchange. Musicians all over the world, they’re pretty much alike, in terms of creative discipline. It’s non-competitive too, I enjoy hearing the next guy tear up the room. There’s a lot of space for young bloods to get out there, and you don’t have to worry about the domestic markets because the foreign markets are there for you.
But in light of everything we see in the film, would you have done anything differently? And moving forward, will you do things differently now?
R: I’d bring young bloods into the studio and give them the experience that I had. I have different bands around the globe, and they’re all good. I just love playing with musicians from all over. I’m in a good place. Just one thing before you go. When you write this up, I don’t want any special treatment. I just want to be treated like an ordinary legend.
Searching For Sugar Man is available on DVD & Blu-ray on 27 December.