Left, film marketing executive Jennifer Bedwell, "Searching for Sugar Man" director Malik Bendjelloul, Rodriguez and his girlfriend Bonnie being photographed by Billboard's Phil Gallo (right).
The bright lights of Paramount Theater marquee gave director Malik Bendjelloul a distinct charge as he wandered outside the venue a half-hour before the 9:30 p.m. screening. His film "Searching for Sugar Man" about the '70s singer-songwriter Rodriguez had won two awards at the Sundance Film festival where it premiered, but "it was nothing like this," he says, standing on the sidewalk and gesturing toward the building's brightly lit facade.
One of the men who acquired "Sugar Man" for Sony Pictures Classics, co-president and co-founder Michael Barker, shared in Bendjelloul's glee, offering to snap a photograph of the director who had traveled from his home in Stockholm to attend SXSW. Set-up for the shot was no easy task. Getting the right angle required Barker to back his way into the middle of Congress Avenue, one of Austin's main thoroughfares, and dodge traffic to get all the necessary elements in the shot. Having crossed the double yellow line -- and emboldened by red lights at both nearby intersections -- Barker captured Bendjelloul and the marquee on an iPhone.
Barker runs Sony Pictures Classics with fellow co-president Tom Bernard and they split film festival duties. "One reason we asked for the Wednesday screening," Barker said, "is you get more of a music and movie crowd."
"Searching for Sugar Man" is one of those rarities at SXSW. The film has distribution in the U.S. and several international territories, but it is still on the festival circuit; it's a tale of rediscovery about a forgotten artist from the early 1970s who is still capable of touring and recording; and it connects with everyone who ever dreamed of securing a record contract.
It's the story of Sixto Rodriguez, who began using only his surname in the late 1960s when he was performing in the dive bars of Detroit, singing about social issues, love and sex and the Motor City milieu; he wrote like Dylan, made records like Donovan and sang in a honeyed style that James Taylor was using to great success at the same time.
His career, seemingly, was kaput after just two albums for the upstart Sussex label, which broke through when Bill Withers started cranking out hits for them. Once he was dropped, he stopped trying, unaware that his music had a significant following in South Africa, particularly among the burgeoning anti-Apartheid movement.
"Searching for Sugar Man" director Malik Bendjelloul (center) and the subject of the documentary, Rodriguez (right) chatting with Billboard's Phil Gallo (left) after his midnight set at Austin's Mohawk.
As his music persona faded, many believed he had died; there were stories of onstage self-immolation. Truth be told, he worked in construction, attended Wayne State University and majored in philosophy and once ran for mayor of Detroit.
"I traveled around for six months, scouting the world for stories to tell in six-minute pieces for Swedish TV," Bendjelloul said on Tuesday, the day before the premiere, using a line he will repeat throughout the festival. "The best story I found, the best story I ever heard in my life, was Rodriguez. I can't even tell you the story in six minutes."
Greeted with two standing ovations -- one for the film and one for the man -- "Sugar Man" provides a Hollywood ending to Rodriguez's story of re-discovery and its on its way to several other film festivals before a theatrical release begins in the U.S. on July 27, just two weeks after Rodriguez's 70th birthday. A new story for Rodriguez is just getting started.
"I didn't know what he was doing," Rodriguez says of Bendjelloul when the director first contacted him. "I didn't know the story, so to speak. … I think he created a film with great suspense, like Hitchcock. He sorted out a very complex story and paid tribute to the art form of music."
During our initial conversation -- the interview was for this story and to prepare for the post-screening Q&A - Rodriguez was concerned whether his guitar would be repaired in time. His gig was set for midnight at the Mohawk after the screening and a tuning peg refused to lock in place.
For the North American premiere of "Searching for Sugar Man" he had a small entourage of his girlfriend Bonnie, Barker, Bendjelloul and Matt Sullivan from Light in the Attic Records, which had re-released his two albums, "Cold Facts" and "Coming From Reality" in 2008 and 2009. Reps who handle Texas and Oklahoma screenings of Sony Pictures Classics films were also in tow.
Collectively, they had the duty of getting Rodriguez out of the theater and into an SUV for the eight-block ride to the Mohawk where he would deliver a solo show to a packed house. Getting him out of the theater proved tough: Rodriguez refused to say no to any fan who wanted an autograph, a photograph or to share a story about his music; one fan even showed up wearing a T-shirt from the South African record store where Malek's story is rooted. Rodriguez got a kick out of that.
At 10 minutes past midnight, Rodriguez made his way downstairs from the Mohawk club's backstage area, his movement in the shadows sparked rousing cheers from the full house on hand. Sullivan accompanied him onstage to provide assistance, both technical and emotional, reading song titles to Rodriguez that they had scribbled onto a piece of cardboard just minutes earlier.
He opened with "Nice 'n' Easy," the Alan and Marilyn Bergman/Lew Spence tune that Frank Sinatra recorded in 1960. Rodriguez gently swung the tune, his voice filled with the warmth you hear on record, and any buzz that rose from the guitar's frets simply put a stamp of humanity on the performance. The nine-song set was filled with the familiar -- "Inner City Blues," "Forget It," "Rich Foks Hoax" - and another standard, Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things." After 40 minutes of music, Rodriguez left the stage and the room cleared out, a sure sign at SXSW that the performer had attracted a room full of die-hard fans.
Afterward, with the small entourage and a few international music distributors, France's Pias among them, gathered back in the green room. Director Poull Brien, whose "Charles Bradley: Soul of America" had its world premiere this year at SXSW, finally remembered why Rodriguez and his music was so familiar: Rodriguez had opened a show in December for Bradley at the Bowery Ballroom.
"I remember Charles standing by the side of the stage and I swear there must have been four times where he was crying or about to cry," Brien recalls. "I didn't know Rodriguez's story at the time and I'm not sure how much Charles knew, but you could tell Charles had this deep connection with him."
On paper, the Rodriguez and Bradley stories share considerable similarities - forgotten singers who rediscovered in their 60s whose lives are filled with considerable pain and poverty yet they never give up hope on a brighter day ahead. Impressed with the way Malik shot his film, Brien talked shots and editing while Malik inquired about story line and structure.
"It will never happen again, a story like this," Bendjelloul predicts. "It's because of extreme isolation. South Africa had no cultural exchange. (Rodriguez was) a man living in a house with no telephone and it was a time before the Internet."
Backstage talk included chat about a tour they hoped to line up beginning in August and running through October. Rodriguez, who occasionally removes his trademark dark glasses, smiles at the thought of the next step. "It seems that it happens every 10 years," he says referring to a 1979 tour of Australia, the 1998 South Africa shows and the 2008 reissues.
As the evening wound down, Rodriguez still had concerns about his guitar, which had been shutting off between songs and had issues with volume control. Light in the Attic's Sullivan assured him it was the cord and not the instrument.
Rodriguez smiled and said, "glad the guitar was OK," before making his way downstairs and onto the next chapter of this unique story.