martin bandyke: 'Searching for Sugar Man' director and star discuss movie's success story
A prize-winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “Searching for Sugar Man” is one of those feel-good films whose charms are pretty much impossible to resist. Recently I had the chance to talk to both Rodriguez and Malik Bendjelloul about their movie.
Q: Tell us about the start of this journey. What inspired you to make a movie about Rodriguez?
Malik Bendjelloul: It’s kind of weird. I went traveling six years ago, scouting for stories with a camera. I quit my job at Swedish TV and went looking for stories. I got down to South Africa and met the detective (Cape Town record-store owner Stephen Segerman), and he told me this story of Rodriquez. I was like, ‘Wow, this is the best story I’ve ever heard, a true Cinderella story.’ I was so moved when I heard it, I fell in love with the story and couldn’t stop working on it.
Q: What were your feelings when you were first approached to be in this film?
Rodriguez: I was reluctant. I was skeptical about the idea of opening up my life to a filmmaker. Anybody asked to do that would be reluctant. But Malik came here and did a great job and is getting a lot of recognition for it.
Q: Once you decided to go ahead with the project, what were some of the most difficult aspects of making this film?
Bendjelloul: To get the story in the right order, because there was so much in this film. There was the story about his (two studio) albums (1970’s “Cold Fact” and 1971’s “Coming from Reality”). The producers thought that they were going to be big, and then came failure when they didn’t sell anything.
But then Rodriguez became literally more famous than the Rolling Stones in South Africa. It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but it’s true. They still talk about Rodriguez in the same breath as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles there. So the contrast between the failure in America and the success in South Africa is something I wanted to capture.
And then the idea that his fans in South Africa think that he’s dead, and they try to answer the question of how did he die. Once they find him alive (and still living in Detroit), it’s a resurrection. It was like finding out Jimi Hendrix didn’t die. He comes to South Africa and is met at the airport by security guards, limousines, red carpets and paparazzi; he can’t believe his eyes. These are moving scenes that still bring tears to my ears sometimes because they’re so beautiful.
Q: How old were you when you started playing guitar?
Rodriguez: I’ve been chasing music since I was 16. I’m a self-taught musician, a solid 70 (years old). I’ve done the '40s, the '50s, the '60s, the '70s, the '80s, the '90s, the zeroes and I’m working on the tens. That’s where I’m at with this. Anybody around the guitar, anybody around that instrument I listen to, but I like Sinatra, too; I like Ray Charles, I like Jimmy Reed.
Detroit has a lot of (radio) stations, so we hear a lot of musics, and I think all our catalogues are full of various amounts of different kinds of musics. It’s a rich city for that.
Q: Why do you think your film has captured people’s emotions so much?
Bendjelloul: It is a very emotional story and a very inspiring, heart-warming one as well. It’s a feel-good movie about a man who didn’t know he was a superstar. There aren’t many true stories like this that have a Hollywood ending. It is like a Hollywood fiction film with the best imaginable end you could dream of. People are crying happy tears when they see it.
Q: For aspiring musicians and veteran ones, your story proves that there is always hope, isn’t there?
Rodriguez: Well yeah, it proves that it’s never too early and it’s never too late. There’s no blueprint for making it. In this business there’s a lot of rejection, a lot criticism and a lot of disappointment. The thing is, you’ve got to be prepared for that. In my case I was too disappointed to be disappointed, so you just carry on and keep doing something you love.