The story of Sixto Rodriguez and the Academy-Award-nominated documentary Searching for Sugar Man, a film about the mysterious, triumphant narrative of Rodriguez's life and music, are genuine wonders for the ages. A street-walking musical poet of inner city Detroit crafted two magnificent albums steeped in social issues and heart in 1970 and 1971, but the albums didn’t even register as a blip on the radar for the music-buying public or the world at large upon their releases.
Absolutely everyone who knew Rodriguez and had a hand in those albums chalked the experience up to the cruel, fickle fate of the music business and its lack of guarantees when it comes to making financially sustainable careers of talented artists. That was the sad tragedy in the first act of Rodriguez’s music career, and the book was closed on a wildly gifted artist who should have been but never was. End of story.
Jump ahead 27 years (a lifetime to some), and the wonderfully inexplicable hands of fate shine a whole new light on the Rodriguez story from two different angles: on Rodriguez’s awareness that his songs helped fuel the revolution of an entire nation, change the world for the better, and sell more than 500,000 records with almost default status in the record collections of many South African homes, while Rodriguez’s most passionate, long-standing fans learn their hero’s gruesome, mysterious demise is nothing short of a legendary fiction.
Jump ahead another 15 years, and an enthusiastic Swedish filmmaker’s passionate telling of Rodriguez’s story premieres to universal acclaim and previously unfathomable receptions, earning the film Best Documentary nominations from the Academy Awards, the Directors Guild of America, and countless others.
Last week, I was honored to speak with both Searching for Sugar Man director, Malik Bendjelloul, and Rodriguez about the film and Rodriguez's unbelievable story on the eve of the DVD release and in the midst of tremendous awards buzz. My conversation with Malik took place on Tuesday while I spoke to Rodriguez by phone on Friday. I believe the best way to relay the interviews is to merge the two dialogues into a singular conversation that brings two enthusiastic, humble, and immensely agreeable artists to life and reinforces the truly wondrous achievement of Searching for Sugar Man.
Rodriguez holds nothing back relative to the accomplishments of Bendjelloul with the film. He spoke to me about how much energy Malik has put into getting the film off the ground and promoting it as it continues to thrill audiences.
“For the film, it’s the director. I met Malik in ’08, and I was skeptical about the whole thing. Now, he’s up for a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Documentary of the year. He’s tireless. He went to Moscow with his film, he went to Australia, he went to Sheffield in England. Right now, I think he’s in Sweden shooting awards stuff for the film. He’s doing a lot. He’s a youngblood and the thing is it’s his first film, he’s a self-made director, and he has a small staff. I think it’s all pretty amazing.”
When I asked Malik whether or not he has fully processed the magnitude of his achievement with all of the awards consideration, he expressed his fascination with the outpouring of acclaim and inability to fully enjoy it.
“The whole thing is crazy and stuff. I guess it really hasn’t (set in). Because the moment it happens, it’s wonderful and you’re very, very happy for like…two minutes. Then, you have an interview or something and you have to think of something and have some discourse. The triumph of the whole experience is pretty short, because you’re already on to the next thing. Then it’s “And now what?” You’re back in the present. It’s crazy. I wake up in the morning and I think about it, and I’m like, “This is absolutely insane.”
I followed up by asking Malik about the world premiere at Sundance in 2012, where the film received five standing ovations and a tireless wave of applause. When Malik revealed Rodriguez in the flesh to the audience, the spectacle of the event became something altogether legendary.
“I think I was really nervous before. Now, I can maybe enjoy it more, because that was crazy – a shock almost. I spent four years and didn’t really socialize with people and was lonely sitting there. Editing is kind of boring. But to experience all of that in a single week was just shocking. That was all fun – just amazing, AMAZING! You know, you know, the response of the audience was actually insane. It was crazy, crazy, crazy. It is so hard to put into words – the craziness and all, because it’s like, you know, “This is never gonna happen again. Maybe this is all.” Maybe it wasn’t, but that was enough. I felt kind of empty the first week after Sundance, because I was like, “Alright. Now what?” (Laughs)
After congratulating Rodriguez on the Academy Award nomination, I asked him if he will be in Hollywood for the main event.
“I will be in South Africa at the time of awards, but we’re going to see how it goes. I was interviewed about it, and just came to the West Coast a couple days ago. The thing is I went to Light in the Attic in ’08 as well. So, every ten years or so, the gigs resurface. It’s a small label, but we made a lot of progress at Sundance with the film. Any questions and I’m happy to answer them.”
Rodriguez referenced being on Light In The Attic, the Seattle-based label that reissued Cold Fact and Coming From Reality. LITA (along with Legacy Recordings, a branch of Sony) is also responsible for releasing the Searching for Sugar Man soundtrack. Anybody who has seen Searching for Sugar Man is abreast of the “mystery of the money,” in which Rodriguez has never seen royalties from any of the hundreds of thousands of albums he sold to his adoring fans in South Africa. I asked Malik if Rodriguez is seeing royalties from the albums he has sold since signing with Light in the Attic in 2008.
“Yeah. Yeah, he does. I mean, we just got an email yesterday that the soundtrack has sold “Gold” in South Africa. It has done pretty well. After showing the movie, they filmed him on 60 Minutes. For a brief time, all three albums – Cold Fact, Coming From Reality, and the soundtrack – were all in the Top 5 of best-selling albums on Amazon. I mean, that’s crazy and wonderful! And, he’s touring everywhere.”
In between my interviews with Malik and Rodriguez, the Rodriguez camp announced a slew of tour dates for the first several months of 2013. There are prominent music festivals in the mix – Coachella and Primavera (as well as another major festival that hasn’t been officially announced yet, although Rodriguez confirmed he’ll be playing) – as well as dates throughout the United States, Europe, Australia, and South Africa.
“We’re doing the interview because of the film, but I toured because of my music career – I met Malik in ’08. The film climaxes in ’98. I’ve been touring since ’98: four times in Australia, four times in South Africa, I’ve done Sweden, England, France, Wales, and I’m going to South Australia and New Zealand again. This is real. The thing is I’m happy, I’m 70, and ready for this (laughs). You know I’m ready for this touring and there are a lot of youngbloods in the audience, and we’re going to have it a great time. It’s really enjoyable.”
“We’re not supposed to mention (the unofficially announced festival), but word has gotten out. But we’re gonna do it. The thing is English-speaking countries are my bag, you know. That’s my fan base so to speak. Australia and South Africa, those two are going to be fun. We’re going to be in France, too. Well, on the first day the tickets went on sale, all the tickets sold in South Africa. So you my height is there. Right away, South Africa put me on the map, and it will be my fifth time going to South Africa. So, it’s a special place. You asked me if there was one place I was more excited about than any others, and South Africa is one of them for sure.”
I asked Malik if he feels particular gratitude that Searching for Sugar Man has won such extensive and immediate acclaim, especially considering its hero wasn’t personally aware of a comparable level of recognition for his work for a period of nearly three decades.
“Right. I agree. People that had heard his music – he doesn’t just become a popular guy; he becomes the most popular guy in the country. That’s what happened even with hundreds of artists in South Africa. He wasn’t just any artist; he was the one that people really loved. In fact, you can only do that if you’re a special artist. They compared him to Dylan, The Stones, The Doors, and The Beatles. There are very few of artists that special out there, and that’s where he belongs. The Beatles only made nine albums, you know, but Rodriguez only made two albums.”
When I asked him what he hopes is ultimately the lasting achievement of Searching for Sugar Man and the story of Rodriguez, Malik said:
“Well, the only thing I think is really going to survive, and survive in a big way, is the music. You really don’t need to see the movie but once or twice, maybe twice. You can listen to his songs ten, twenty, fifty, hundreds of times! You can listen to those songs your whole life and really fall in love with them. It would really mean something to him if that happens. Music is made to create something in life, but music really creates your own life! Music is a higher art and becomes part of your blood, and the songs are about you. With your experience and in your own context, they are about you. Music is, I think, a higher art form, and you can really fall in love with Rodriguez’s songs in a real way.”
In an attempt to follow up a question Malik poses to Rodriguez moments after his big reveal in Searching for Sugar Man, I asked Rodriguez if he was personally satisfied on an artistic level for the years following with the songs he crafted for Cold Fact and Coming From Reality. I mentioned how so many artists say they create the art for themselves and any acclaim or recognition for their work is somewhat secondary to their personal satisfaction. Rodriguez said:
“Well, I’ll tell you, Justin, a little bit about the music content. Maybe that’s what’s doing it, whatever. It’s a lot like salvation, you know (laughs). Maybe I shouldn’t have said those things. But anyway, I wasn’t told what to write or how to write or anything. I like that freedom and I like art, and music is a living art – you know, you shape it any way you want. I’d written about three songs – maybe a little more than that – they’re 40 years old and have a message – you know, we put the work in there. It had good production. I feel it has that. With bad production or weak production, they might not have lasted as long. So I think big credit is with the producers.”
I told Malik I think, perhaps, one of his greatest achievements in Searching for Sugar Man is how perfectly Rodriguez’s songs fit into the narrative of his story. I asked him if he felt all along how almost magically the songs would round out the story and bring it to life the jigsaw puzzle pieces connecting.
“It’s insane. “I’ll Slip Away,” which is at the end of the film like you were talking about, is absolutely great, but I found one that works even better called “Silver Words.” But to put it in, we’d have to re-edit the whole thing. So, I had a big fight with the producer, who was like, ‘I love “I’ll Slip Away” too much to take it out. You can’t change it now.’ And I was like, “’Silver Words” makes it even better!’ It’s insane. I mean, every song he made is that good. It was so easy to put his music in the film, because every song he made could fit anywhere and sound amazing. That’s only possible if you have songs that are at an absolute world-class level. I’ve done a lot of editing with music, and it never works that good. His music is just magic, and if you have magic you can do whatever you’d like.”
I mentioned to Rodriguez that much of the Searching for Sugar Man story struck me as a fitting parable for the plights of his hometown of Detroit for decades. I asked him if he thought his story would mean quite as much had he been from a different American city. He gave me a tremendous and breathless response that doesn’t necessarily answer the question, but it speaks volumes about who Rodriguez is, what he cares about, and what he wishes to speak about.
“My answer to that is I describe myself as a musical political: urban. My mother and father are both Mexican, and I was born and bred in Detroit. The thing is I think whatever happens in the urban setting – people can cross-reference that – I’m not rural, in that I’m not from the country, you know. So that’s the difference. I think people resound with that. I think all of these urban things: police brutality, government depression – those kinds of things – the lines that scale the war. You know who goes to serve in that. Now it’s replacing the American family.
I’m 70. I’ve done the 40s, the 50s, and now today. The thing is the fissures of World War II are very fresh in my mind. The fissures of Ohio - Kent State - are just like yesterday for me. Some youngbloods don’t understand that. Every 20 years or couple of decades, they have a whole crop of youngbloods who don’t know about it. They don’t know some of the real stuff that happened before them. They have their own perspective. So I think the powers that be of larger society takes advantage of that ignorance.
I feel there has to be an end to violence and the power trip kind of feeling. I know women’s rights were trapped in the 70s, and it’s still prevalent today, unfortunately. South Africa, where Steve Bilko was beaten in police custody, and Soweto. Those names are also new to people the same way Darfur and Syria are, where so many people have migrated out of because of war, which they say is 60,000. 26,000 from Vietnam -American soldiers, the inflated need for more troops. That stuff is still resounding in my brain. Those people are not numbers.
Yeah, I’m a political. Social issues mature. So, I continue to do it now, and I’m in activism. I like Woody Guthrie, and he influences Dylan and the rest of them. Like Neil Young or Bob Geldof with his Live Aid – social work and that kind of thing. With the film, there have been all of these instances of people watching it, enjoying it, and crying and all. That’s Malik and his film that are doing that. I’m the soundtrack, but he’s the master of the landscape or whatever.”
Malik has called story of Rodriguez “the greatest story I have ever heard.” I asked him about the four years of his life he spent bringing the Searching for Sugar Man story to fruition, and I asked him about the level of internal pressure to do the story justice.
“Yeah, part of why you don’t want to mess up the story is because there’s so much great stuff. People can have a great story and tell it poorly, and it’s just boring. It needs a rhythm and energy. It’s like a heartbeat. You need new blood to run through the veins or else it’s boring. There are so many great stories within it, and every new one was like a gold coin. And there’s so much great stuff that’s not in the film. I feel sad about that and would have loved to have made a film that was twice as long, but I didn’t want to make another 82 minutes regardless of whether I have better stuff. Anything can be told in 82 minutes, and it’s almost better to be concise with the facts, you know. Editing is so organic; you can’t explain why it works or why there’s not enough. It’s just a feeling in your stomach.”
I told Malik I thought the decision to focus on Rodriguez’s daughters for the back half of the Searching for Sugar Man story was an inspired decision. They tell the story of Rodriguez’s life in the decades since recording Cold Fact and Coming From Reality by presenting an honorable, humble, and altogether extraordinary man in a way only people who intimately know him can. I asked Malik if the decision was due to the fact that he was working with a subject who was less than enthusiastic about talking about himself on film.
“I knew all along Rodriguez was never going to be the main character in the movie, because the way he’s portrayed is as this shadow and mystery man. That’s how everyone knew him as he walked the streets of Detroit. He was this man who wore a black jacket, had black sunglasses, and had a guitar in his bag, never talking. That’s how I wanted him to be in the film, and after meeting him he was still that way. I thought that image was kind of an evocative one, and that was really him - that was who he really was. I only recorded him on film for 45 minutes, but I hung out with him for weeks. I still couldn’t really get him talking about his life. He likes to talk about politics, life in general, democracy, and everything, but not about himself.”
Rodriguez showed me just what Malik was talking about when I asked him about his Detroit origins and whether or not his story would differ had he been raised elsewhere. Picking up where I left off before, here is the back half of Rodriguez’s response of why he is political and why he writes about urban issues.
“Walt Disney is pushing the buttons too far. Walt Disney Radio – you listen to it for an hour, because that’s what all the youngbloods are listening to. It’s successful, you know? They want those young minds, you know what I mean? With too much sugar in the beverages, etcetera. They’re the same kinds of issues though, because they aren’t confronting them by themselves. They have to speak, and they have to find out what’s available to them. So, I think the thing is we should save Social Security and let the youngbloods not worry about that in America from now on.
And again I have to say this, Justin, if I may: I feel more women should be granted leadership roles in governments, because the guys have proven more than once they can’t do it. They come up so far, and then get stopped by stagnation – political stagnation. I feel there are more women as voters, there are more women in the Army, so they should turn it over and let the women have a shot. Snyder in Michigan, he had the right-to-work thing he passed. [Michigan’s Republican Gov. Rick Snyder passed a trio of so-called "right-to-work" bills that targeted labor unions in the public and private sectors.] The voters voted against it, but he passed it anyway. Look at the Wisconsin governor, Walker. We sent a message. 16 states approved medical marijuana; so hey, I’m not alone here (laughs). And Washington and Colorado legalized it. That should save a lot of picketing and jail time. That’s stuff the cops and the judges to see. It’s just an industry.
I feel we’re approaching a time where we’ll demystify all of this stuff. But we need doctors, good doctors, you know. I think if there are human-made problems, they need to be solved. I’m a worker bee. And the thing is: if it’s broken, fix it. I know that mentality seems kind of simplistic, but I believe there might be some basis to that. How about Wall Street? Bet on your client to lose? You know, jeez. Again, it’s just a game they play on people. I’m political. I use the music and protest songs as a vehicle to bring light to these urban situations.”
This is the man Rodriguez is, and these are the issues he longs to speak of when provided a platform. He is a man – a single worker bee in a world that could use some fixing. Any time he is presented with the choice of talking about himself or addressing the greater issues he holds dearly, he will give voice to the social concerns every time. This is why Malik let Rodriguez’s daughters tell the story of their father to detail the incredibly humble humanity of Rodriguez in Searching for Sugar Man. Malik said:
“However, just to see those daughters talk and how they are tells everything about Rodriguez. They are coming from what he created, and they are beautiful people – all of those daughters. He took them to the museums, art shows, and libraries to make them very refined people. Coming from great art, they are refined and very, very inspirational and accomplished people – his daughters.”
When discussing the Academy Awards chatter and the Hollywood machine, Rodriguez told me about a crucial distinction between artists and entertainers. In the midst of it, I asked him about the pressures to alter his image on the cover of Cold Fact (sporting hippie-inspired attire as opposed to his traditional, far cooler all black ensembles) and label requests record under a name other than Rodriguez.
“I really am proud to be a part of it (the film), but I’m a musician, you know. Here’s the deal: I went to The Hollywood Reporter (this week), and they asked me to pose. I told them ‘I came here to get pictures, not to pose. When they asked me to smile, I said I’m a musician, not an actor.’ It’s a traditional kind of position, see. I kind of reflect like that.
(In response to the Cold Fact portrait) Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s, like, staged. You know what I mean? Scripted. Rehearsed. I think some of that is necessary – you’ve gotta walk on or whatever, but some of it is staged. I’m more for a different approach to music. Still, most of that is glamour, but it’s part of rock and I love it.”
I once again congratulated Malik on the Academy Awards and Directors Guild of America nominations. I asked him if, in addition to Searching for Sugar Man, if there are any films he would additionally be pulling for on Oscar night.
I loved the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild. It’s the best movie, and it’s really inspirational the way they made the film almost like a documentary. It took a long time, and they worked really hard on it and edited it for a year. I love that kind of thing where you really, really work for something and get it to be a success.
His response is a perfectly concise reasoning for why so many people have fallen in love Searching for Sugar Man as a film. At its heart, the documentary is one gifted man’s four-year passion project aiming to do justice to the unfathomable and inspiring true story of another extraordinary artist’s mysterious, humble life and grand achievements after half a lifetime of deferred gratification. The whole story is a modern day fairy tale that very well could have never been. We are blessed to be able to experience the story as it unfolds in Searching for Sugar Man and to cherish every aspect of it for years to come now that Rodriguez is receiving his dues.
* Searching for Sugar Man is out on DVD and Blu-ray via Sony Pictures on January 22. Rodriguez's Cold Fact, Coming From Reality, and the Searching for Sugar Man original soundtrack (Legacy Recordings) are available on iTunes, Amazon, and at music retailers everywhere courtesy of Light In The Attic Records.
**This post first appeared on The Silver Tongue on January 21, 2013.
Justin works as a content producer for ChaCha in Indianapolis during the day. He got his start writing music pieces with Laundromatinee in Indianapolis, where he still makes featured contributions. Justin resides in Noblesville, IN, and his personal blog, Division St. Harmony, can be found at www.divisionstharmony.tumblr.com.
His first loves in music have long been The Clash, Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. His personal tastes are fairly broad and include garage, indie rock, classic rock, Americana, roots, outlaw and classic country, punk, blues, rhythm and blues and soul.
Justin takes pride in an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Justin welcomes you to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel and on Facebook.
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