Malik Bendjellouls documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, aims to separate myth from man.
PHOTO COURTESY SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
Its surreal to see the artist, known only as Rodriguez, alive and well.
Walking into the House of Blues on the Sunset Strip with documentarian Malik Bendjelloul, Rodriguez has an extra sense of calm in this concert temple dedicated to troubadours such as himself.
Bendjelloul and Rodriquez still seem surprised theyre here. From Detroit to South Africa, its ironic that their story ends in Hollywood where, if their documentary were a screenplay, it would be filed away as being too unrealistic.
That was the hardest thing, said the director. I thought it was evident that the story was good had it been conceived by a screenwriter you would have thought that it was too much, too unbelievable to make sense.
Not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine anything like this would happen, Rodriguez adds. It is an indescribable feeling of triumph and I am so honored by the care Malik took in telling the story.
Searching For Sugar Man highlights Rodriguezs story of a great rock icon that never was. His debut album, Cold Fact, is hailed as a classic timestamp of the turbulent 1960s. As non-existent sales or exposure plagued him in the U.S., Rodriguez enjoyed a parallel life full of acclaim and success a world away. Only he never knew it.
While Sugar Man is a film about hope, inspiration and the resonating power of music, it also shows the music industrys seedy underbelly.
When we were putting the film together, we really didnt get into it but the royalties are such an issue, Bendjelloul noted. I talked to the producers of Rodriguezs albums [Cold Facts Dennis Coffey and Coming From Realitys Steve Rowland]. I asked if they were supposed to receive royalties. Of course, they said. Its how we make our money. When the director asked if they ever received royalties they both stated no. Rowland went so far as to say that he has never even seen a statement regarding Rodriguez.
As the issue has come to light, further research has shown any justice is wrapped in red tape.
I cant believe how complex this is, clamored Bendjelloul. I spoke to him [Rodriguezs former label boss, Sussexs Clarence Avant] and a lot of other people and it really is a very complicated piece. Ive spoken to representatives from the big three record companies and there is an account in Australia linked to a Jesus Rodriguez where Clarence and Rodriguez could make a claim, but all the records are lost.
Rodriguez currently has back catalog attached to Light In The Attic Records but is, understandably, cautious when coming to his next contract.
I have my past contracts and those are currently being resolved. Im going to go into my next one with three attorneys, declares the songwriter. Im going to have one who handles international law, one in entertainment law and one just for contracts. Rodriguez added, Hopefully everything will work itself out. At the moment Im with Light in the Attic and everything is going good.
Bendjelloul chimes in: Its interesting because Rodriguez still sells a lot of records in South Africa and he still doesnt get any royalties. I truly hope some attorney sees these films and decides to help.
Its not quite on the same scale as Rodriguez, but the director also understands the concept of sacrificing for the sake of art.
I was so passionate about it that I didnt receive a salary for three years, I just worked on the movie, but there was a point where I had to find a proper job and I thought I would have to give up, Bendjelloul recalls.
Royalty issues aside, Searching For Sugar Man also makes commentary on how hearsay can add a legendary cachet to artists (Alice Cooper, David Bowie) or, as in Rodriquez case, relegate them to obscurity.
As Rodriguezs music became the soundtrack to protest in South Africa, the notion of having the artist visit the country was never considered because it was accepted that the songwriter was dead. Rumor had it that Rodriquez, tired of playing empty venues, shot himself or lit himself on fire mid-set. As the tall tale crippled the songwriters career, it also served as the concept for the documentary.
I dont know how it started but there was no information, nothing about this guy and then it becomes [the game] Telephone where one person tells someone something and then they tell someone and, if its a good story, it spreads, said the director. Initially the story wasnt about if he was alive or dead; we thought he was dead but the question was how did he die? Did he shoot himself or light himself on fire?
It was through traveling abroad and looking for inspiration that Bendjelloul met Stephen Sugar Segerman who shared Rodriguezs music and shared his later, not-to-be-real demise.
I had never heard Rodriguezs music when Stephen Segerman first told me about him. I fell so totally in love with his story that I was almost afraid to listen to his work. I thought the chances were very slim that the music would be as good as the story; that I'd be disappointed and lose momentum.
Fortunately, Bendjelloul persisted. I started to listen to it when I came back to Europe, and I couldn't believe my ears literally. I thought my feelings for the story might have influenced my judgment, and I needed to play it to other people to see if they agreed. Their reactions convinced me these really were songs on a level equal to the best work of Bob Dylan, even the Beatles, Bendjelloul says.
After recounting his story, the documentarian is still amazed by this happenstance. I visited 16 countries in that trip; in each country I searched after good stories by reading newspapers and books and asking fellow travelers. This was by far the best. I was completely speechless I hadnt heard a better story in my life.
As Rodriguez music has been hidden for decades, the artist feels that now is a great time for his music to come to light as he hopes that it can once again inspire change.
Today, a fruit vendor in Tunisia is bringing down a dictator. In Syria, the government is caught shooting civilians, not unlike Kent State in Ohio. Picasso's Guernica could be a reference to Darfur or the My Lai Massacre. The issue is wars being conducted against civilian populations as opposed to military forces in combat. Political injustice and social activism continue in the world,
As Searching For Sugar Man frames Rodriguez immaculately and serves as a time capsule for music in the 60s, the songwriter eschews the past in favor of the present.
The climax in the film takes place in 1998, but for me it is still going, says Rodriguez. I have been touring ever since, so the story continues for me.