Searching for Sugar Man director Malik Bendjelloul
Photo by Sven-Ake Visen, Courtesy of Malik Bendjelloul/Sony Pictures Classics

Searching for Sugar Man has already become one of the year’s most acclaimed documentaries, having won awards at Sundance, Tribeca, and the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film weaves together various narratives surrounding the enigmatic singer/songwriter Rodriguez who faded into obscurity in America after releasing two albums in the early seventies. Unbeknownst to the man himself, a few scant copies of his seminal album Cold Fact somehow made their way to South Africa, where it would become one of the best selling albums of the era. Rodriguez became an anti-apartheid figurehead, despite the entire nation knowing nothing about him, including whether or not the man himself was alive or dead, fiction or fact. After the bans of the Apartheid-era were lifted, two fans went on a worldwide musical scavenger hunt to try and find their hero. That journey and the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction reality behind it forms the basis for the first feature from Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul. I recently enjoyed a chat with Bendjelloul in anticipation of the film’s opening on July 27th. Here’s what he shared with me about his own musical scavenger hunts, getting the interviews that made up the film, and crafting Searching for Sugar Man.

Jackson Truax: How did you initially come to want to make a film about Rodriguez?

Malik Bendjelloul: In 2006, I went out traveling with a camera, looking for stories in Africa and South America. Just looking for good stories. I found a few good ones… I met [record store owner] Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman from Cape Town. He told me the story. I said, “Wow! This is the best story I’ve ever heard in my life. This is just fantastic.” Ever since then, I’ve been working on this.

JT: Once you knew you were on that journey, did you have any detective work of your own to do, like what’s depicted in the film, or was the story already there for you?

MB: New stories came up all the time… I knew what had happened in South Africa. I knew that Rodriguez was alive. I knew the climax. I knew the outline of the story already.

JT: What was the process of approaching and working with the Rodriguez family?

MB: There were a few other people that had been approaching him about doing documentaries. I think one of the advantages I had was that before I met him the first time, I had been out for almost a month filming other people talking about him. So for the first time in thirty years…he saw [record producer] Steve Rowland, the producer of Coming From Reality. And Rodriguez didn’t even know that Steve remembered him. So when he heard all those warm words coming from Steve Rowland, I think he was pretty moved. So that was one of the reasons, I think, that he opened up… Rodriguez said he was only going to be in the movie if he liked the movie in the end. So it was a big risk-taking.

JT: Once you went about getting interviews for the film, were people excited to talk to you, or did you meet any resistance?

MB: I would say that almost everyone was very interested in talking for this film. The record producers, they hadn’t been talking about Rodriguez for thirty years. No one had asked them questions about him when I first met them in 2008. They all thought that what they had done together was something very, very special. Dennis Coffey and Mike Theodore had been working with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and The Supremes and all these great, great artists. They really say that out of all the artists the worked with, Cold Fact was probably the best album. It was a masterpiece. They were very, very happy to talk about him.

JT: When you were doing the research and getting these interviews, what did you see or hear or learn that surprised you the most?

MB: Oh, there was so much… When I first met Rodriguez, I thought he was almost super-human. I had heard so many intriguing stories about him, from everybody. They were talking about him, as [Sussex Records founder] Clarence Avant said, “Rodriguez, you don’t know what spacecraft he came off of. Or what planet he came from. He was a different kind of a guy. He talked different, looked different. Everything about him was very, very different.” I thought, “Who is this guy?” Everyone had really intriguing stuff to say about him. And the people in Detroit, who were talking about this shadow man walking around dressed in black in the night, with his guitar on his back, never talking to anybody. He was the most intriguing person I’d ever heard about.

JT: Searching for Sugar Man is coming to theaters in limited release on July 27th and then expanding throughout the summer. Why is it important audiences seek out Searching for Sugar Man, and what do you think the film has to offer audiences that’s unique?

MB: I think they’re in for a treat. It’s very inspirational. People cry and laugh. They get happy. It seems that people are really reenergized with some kind of hope and inspired… Also, they will get a new album that they’re going to check out… It’s going to be your new favorite album. It’s really good music. It’s very, very accessible. It’s very direct stuff. You can’t really not like it.

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