A few names are synonymous with Rock music, Elvis, Bob Dylan and The Rollings Stones among them. But in South Africa, one man – a Mexican/American singer/songwriter from Detroit simply known as Rodriguez – is arguably more popular than all of them, has been since a bootleg copy of his album “Cold Fact” made its way there in the early 1970s. During a time when that country was up against an increasingly aggressive Apartheid regime, “Cold Fact” gave many Afrikaners the strength and inspiration to rebel against their oppresive government.
“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 disapointed and lose momentum,” explains Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, the director behind the new Rodriguez documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. ”I started to listen to it when I came back to Europe, and I couldn’t believe my ears – literally.”
Neither could music producers Mike Theodore and Dennis Coffey, the latter of which has worked with Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Ringo Starr, among many others, through the years. When the two first heard Rodriguez playing in a Detroit bar in the late ’60s, they were immediately struct my his mysterious presence, simple yet evocative voice, poetic lyrics and folk melodies, as they explain in the documentary.
Immediately going to work with Rodriguez, the producers thought the work they were creating was the masterpiece of their producing careers. And in many ways, it was, earning three-and-a-half stars from Spin magazine and great reviews from the like of Rolling Stone and more recently Entertainment Weekly, which called it “all genius.”
But even today’s biggest music stars know that good reviews don’t always equal good sales, and that was the case with “Cold Fact.” Rodriguez’s music career was over as quickly as it started. And so was his life, if you believe the many rumors and myth about his on-stage suicide, in one incident lighting himself on fire, putting a gun to his head in another.
Rodriguez never knew about his success and popularity in South Africa. That’s where two fans decided it was time to find out the truth, so they started ‘searching for Sugar Man.’ Years later, those fans told their story to Bendjelloul – whose previous credits include a documentary series on the history of heavy metal, others where collaborated with Sting, Elton John and U2, and one exploring rumors surrounding Paul McCartney’s death.
Years later, Searching for Sugar Man is a story that plays out like an exciting mystery full of intrigue and revelations. Bendjelloul makes his movie feel like a big-budget production. In actuality, he used the Super 8 app on his iPhone to shoot some scenes after his budget ran short for shooting on actual Super 8. ”The result was almost as good as the real stuff, quite amazing,” he said.
He also quite effectively uses animated scenes to recreate those moments in Rodriguez’s life that weren’t captured on film. ”I started to paint the animation myself,” Bendjelloul explains. ”For one month, I was sitting painting with chalk by my kitchen table. I had never painted before in my life, but I thought my efforts might be good enough as sketches, and would reduce the work for a real animator later.”
Combined with sweeping shots overlooking Cape Town, South Africa and other images captured using a crane, Searching for Sugar Man has a cinematic, larger-than-life scope, appropriate for a man whose popularity is larger-than-life on another continent and should’ve been in the States.
A new chapter to the story played out recently at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, and The Seven Sees was there.