Sweet Returns in the Search for ‘Sugar Man’
Surprise is the refrain in the story behind the story of pop mystery Rodriguez and filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul.
Truth is stranger than fiction (or so it is said). Yet, generally, fiction is stranger than truth by design. Or it should be. But on rare occasions, truth really is stranger (or at least some version of the truth). Such is the story of Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter that nearly became the ‘next big thing’ in the early 1970s. And then he didn’t. And then he did, halfway around the world from his home in Detroit (not that he knew about it at the time). Searching for Sugar Man is this story, directed by first-time feature-length documentary filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul. The film opens in Los Angeles and New York City today.
Jonathan Marlow: Happiest of birthdays to you [this conversation occurred on Rodriguez’s 70th birthday]! You’re flying to Seattle this evening?
Rodriguez: In a few hours. Mr. Bendjelloul was in Moscow a week-and-a-half ago where he won an award for the film. And then he was in Prague. We just came back from the Hamptons and Alec Baldwin presented the film. I also did a gig there.
Marlow: You performed after the screening in the Hamptons?
Rodriguez: Yeah. It was a small one. It was only a half-hour presentation but it was good. And then we did Chicago.
Marlow: Are you working with the same backing band at each show?
Rodriguez: Oh, no. This time I did it solo. I was in New Jersey two weeks ago and I did a 5,000 seater. Ray Davies from the Kinks was there. Ann Wilson was there. Joan Armatrading was there. I continue to pursue my music career.
Marlow: I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t fond of the film. But I had a copy of Cold Fact long before I knew of the documentary’s existence.
Rodriguez: It all worked out somehow, eh?
Marlow: There’s a moment during your performance in South Africa when the bass-line kicks in from ‘I Wonder.’ That’s such a great moment in the film. It builds very nicely up to that. A triumphant moment.
Rodriguez: It was an incredible sense of triumph. It was quite something. It was a highlight of my life.
Marlow: So far!
Marlow: I’ve read a bit about the way that you came to hear the story of Rodriguez. Traveling to South Africa and getting a grasp of something that seems hard to believe. That a singer-songwriter from Detroit who released two failed albums in the 1970s became hugely popular in South Africa, Tanzania, New Zealand, and Australia.
Malik Bendjelloul: I quit my job in 2006 and went traveling for six months in Africa and South America looking for stories. In Capetown, I met Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and he told me the story of Rodriguez. It was a beautiful story. Maybe the best story I ever heard. It was a beautiful, fantastic story.
I sold out the Opera House in Sydney four times! That’s an interesting moment in my career. But after that, nothing happened. This information would’ve complicated things in the movie. — Rodriguez
Marlow: Rodriguez was the best of the best stories that you heard.
Bendjelloul: The best of the best stories. He really is!
Marlow: Presumably, the order in which you filmed the interviews was considerably different than the order in which things appear in the documentary.
Bendjelloul: Yes. For the first 42 minutes, he’s considered to be a dead artist. Like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. People are going to know that he is alive when the film is released because we’re doing a press tour. At this very moment…
Marlow: I know. I’m a part of it! You’re ruining the surprise…
Bendjelloul: Ruining the whole thing. But then I realized that it doesn’t really matter.
Marlow: No. With great storytelling, it doesn’t really matter.
Bendjelloul: Everyone knows that the Titanic is going to sink! [Laughter.]
Bendjelloul: There are many stories where you actually know what was going to happen.
Marlow: But I don’t think that you’ve overplayed your hand. It’s more the experience of the people who believed that he was gone….
Marlow: The rumor of your demise had circulated quite a bit. However, you recorded a live album in Australia in the early 1980s. That predates much of this narrative.
Rodriguez: I toured Australia in 1979 and 1981 and then recorded a live album. I was doing 2,000 seats. 30,000 people over 15 concerts….
Marlow: …in a country that doesn’t really have a very large population.
Rodriguez: I sold out the Opera House in Sydney four times! That’s an interesting moment in my career. But after that, nothing happened. This information would’ve complicated things in the movie.
Marlow: Indeed. An inconvenient detail.
Rodriguez: But, much like Alfred Hitchcock, Bendjelloul creates suspense through that technique. It holds the attention for so long.
Marlow: In the end credits, it becomes clear how involved you were in the process. You were the animator. You wrote the incidental music. You were very invested in this project in a way that many filmmakers are not.
Bendjelloul: It was a great deal of fun to create stuff with your own hands. Many directors don’t do anything like this. That’s the most fun part of it! That’s where you really create your story.
Marlow: Did you add the incidental music as you were cutting or did you create certain scenes and then refine them as you were adding in the music? Obviously, music is a key part of this film….
Bendjelloul: I wrote the music after the film was edited. I wrote the music directly to the edit.
Marlow: But as far as Rodriguez’s music?
Bendjelloul: The strange thing was that there were so many songs that we could’ve used. When you have really good songs… They all worked!
I quit my job in 2006 and went traveling for six months in Africa and South America looking for stories. In Capetown, I met Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and he told me the story of Rodriguez. It was a beautiful story. Maybe the best story I ever heard. It was a beautiful, fantastic story. — Malik Bendjelloul
Marlow: Outside of talking to people who were fascinated with his story or his music or speaking with the producers of the records and, later, his children and himself, you’re presented with a challenge. How do you present something that for 42 minutes you keep as a mystery? You don’t have footage. You don’t have many stills. The animation that you use to bridge this gap is very clever.
Bendjelloul: I did a lot of work on the first part, first of all. I knew that that’s the challenge. To make that part, you don’t really know what is the payoff. You don’t know what’s going to come next. It needs to be interesting even if you don’t know anything. Now, if you know stuff then the first part is more interesting. But then you don’t get the revelations. It’s cool if you don’t know.
Marlow: At the earliest screenings, there was palpable sense of mystery in the audience. They were surprised.
Bendjelloul: I remember that we had a big screening in London and people were screaming and applauding when they saw Rodriguez for the first time.
Marlow: At the window?
Bendjelloul: That was beautiful.
Marlow: The first time that we hear him talk. That was the first time that you talked with him on camera?
Bendjelloul: It was the first real interview. He didn’t want to be on camera from the very start. He said, ‘No, you can make the film without me. You already have all of the other people. That’s enough. You have a movie already! You don’t need me.’ I said, ‘Yes, I do!’
Marlow: At that point, had you shown Rodriguez some of the footage that you’d done?
Bendjelloul: I showed him all of the interviews with the producers. For him, it was moving to see that they not just remembered him but that they remembered him so fondly. ‘The most talented man we’ve ever worked with.’ I don’t think he knew that they thought that about him.
Marlow: Rodriguez has a fairly humble lifestyle in Detroit. From the footage of him going and performing these sold-out concerts in South Africa and then coming back to Detroit, there are two separate halves to the same person. It’s quite a contrast. In your interviews, you get a glimpse of the private person.
Bendjelloul: Exactly! He always says, ‘I’m not a film star. I make music.’
Marlow: Are there a number of things happening to allow Sony to release the soundtrack?
Rodriguez: They had to get permission from the owners of Sussex. They did a few maneuvers here and there. It’s such a can of worms.
Marlow: That’s a whole other story.
Rodriguez: Exactly. It’s a legal point now. That will be resolved soon. I will tell everybody how it turns out.
Marlow: When you get to that point.
Rodriguez: Right! I will tell them how it turns out. They did it to John Fogerty.
Marlow: Fantasy Records, yes.
Bendjelloul: The mission of the truth is something that this film uncovers. The journalistic approach of asking hard questions.
Marlow: Of finding parallels between the urban blight of Detroit and Sun City. The separation of the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’
I did a show here [at Great American Music Hall] a few years ago and the keyboard player, a really good guy, took us up to this little place. From there, you could see all kinds of things. We talked into the night and then he says, ‘See? San Francisco didn’t melt.’ You know? San Francisco isn’t melting. And he was telling me my lyrics….
Bendjelloul: That’s right!
Marlow: The music business has changed.
Rodriguez: Right. Tremendously.
Marlow: …it allows things like this to resurface. The passion of these assorted individuals, like Steve Segerman.
Rodriguez: He is the hero of the film. I didn’t believe that I was anything in South Africa until Sugar says, ‘Here. Look at this.’
Marlow: It seems like the past is about to get eclipsed by everything that is about to happen.
Rodriguez: Those details are important.
Marlow: Your former co-workers in Detroit are very articulate about the separation of your private persona from your public image.
Rodriguez: Public, yes, but we all have our private personal lives. Fame is fleeting. You’ve got to have someone next to you. They say that the life of a film is one year. We’re doing everything we can to make this a success.
Marlow: You used to perform with your back to the crowd. What happened that allowed you to face the audience?
Rodriguez: I have my eyes closed most the time when I am playing. I’m listening to the lead guitar or the keyboard. Once they start a riff, I’m following them. There’s a lot of…
Rodriguez: …interplay. Yes. There’s a lot of interplay up there. I try and remember my lyrics. It’s not like, ‘Oh, here I am and I’ve got it all down.’ It’s different style of playing. It’s a living art.
Marlow: Do the songs change a bit in the setting of a live performance?
Rodriguez: They do. They do. But I try and stay true to the original. The lead guitar player is copying Dennis Coffey’s style, Chris Spedding’s style. He’s got his own riffs, too.
Marlow: It’s a hybrid of the three.
Rodriguez: Exactly. Ed [Coonagh] was my lead guitar player when I was performing in England. I’d played with him before. He’s excellent. He’s got a band called the Resistors. They all have their own careers. Sometimes I perform with a band but I’m basically a solo artist. And I’ve learned a lot of how to do better presentations. The work teaches you the job. It’s like that. Nobody goes into it knowing it all. You’ve got to learn what to do. It’s just a development.
Marlow: With the forthcoming tour, will one of your daughters join you on the road?
Rodriguez: I have three daughters: Eva, Sandra and Regan. They’ve been to Australia and South Africa with me. They’ve saved my life so many times. But I was in a pretty rough situation. ‘He conquers who conquers himself.’ They’ve helped me out a lot in my life. I am happy to share whatever I’ve got with them. And I’m a grandpa. I’ve got a couple of grandkids. My grandson, Ethan. That’s Eva’s boy. And three other grandchildren: Molly, Angela, and Amanda. That’s a reward.
I showed him all of the interviews with the producers. For him, it was moving to see that they not just remembered him but that they remembered him so fondly. ‘The most talented man we’ve ever worked with.’ I don’t think he knew that they thought that about him. — Bendjelloul
Marlow: Are you determined to stay living in the same place?
Rodriguez: You’ve got to be from somewhere! I was born and bred in Detroit. I graduated from the University there. I don’t want to move to the Bahamas just yet! [Laughter.]
Marlow: On All My Best, the collection that came out in Australia, the three songs that weren’t included on your first two albums are also included on the Light in the Attic reissue of your second album as bonus tracks. Those are from the Cold FacT recording sessions? One was a re‑recording of your first single.
Rodriguez: Yeah. That was ‘Slip Away.’ That was the first thing that I recorded with Impact Records. I thought that the film could stand on the merits of the two records. I didn’t want my later music to be a focus of the movie at all. I didn’t want to talk about working on new stuff. It’s like writers looking for new stories. Thoughts that they’ll get back to. Maybe they never will.
Marlow: But you never stopped playing. You only stopped recording and performing.
Marlow: One last thing before you disappear for the airport. There’s a moment in the film when they’re going through your lyrics and breaking them down. ‘Maybe he’s from here. Maybe he’s from there.’ But, maybe because I live here, you obviously reference San Francisco but that’s never mentioned in the film.
Rodriguez: Another geographic point! I’ve got to tell you this because I did a show here [at Great American Music Hall] a few years ago and the keyboard player, a really good guy, took us up to this little place. From there, you could see all kinds of things. We talked into the night and then he says, ‘See? San Francisco didn’t melt.’ You know? San Francisco isn’t melting. And he was telling me my lyrics. [‘The wind was slowly melting, San Francisco disappears…’ from ‘Jane S. Piddy,’ the closing song on Rodriguez’s first album.]
Bendjelloul: That’s a deleted scene! That’s going to be a bonus on the DVD. When Sugar says, ‘I was looking for places where Rodriguez could from.’ I tried to see if there were any places mentioned more than once because that would be a strong indicator that it might be the place where he came from. I checked very carefully. No place mentioned more than once. But then I read the lyrics again and I saw this song he sings about San Francisco. And then I watched this television ad and saw this thing called Haight‑Ashbury.
Bendjelloul: There’s a song on the album called ‘Hate Street Dialogue’ but it’s spelled differently. It was ‘hate’ not ‘haight.’
Rodriguez: Those two songs on the Cold Fact album were actually written by the producers. They asked if it was all right to put their stuff on the album. Since this was my first album with Sussex, I could hardly refuse.
Marlow: And yet a song like ‘Only Good for Conversion’ evokes the Detroit sound of the era. That should’ve been a clue.
Rodriguez: The lead there by Dennis Coffey is the real kicker.
Marlow: It’s tough.
Rodriguez: Real tough.