A Suicide & A Director's Musical Legacy

Malik Bendjelloul created a new audience for the overlooked musician Rodriguez through his first and only theatrically released film, Searching for Sugar Man. Though underfunded during its creation, the film's distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, sent Bendjelloul and Rodriguez around the world to support the remarkable story about an artist wholly unaware that his music had won an enthusiastic following on the other side of the globe.

Bendjelloul, who committed suicide May 13 at the age of 36 in Stockholm, was not only selling his film to audiences, he was proselytizing for Rodriguez as a contemporary artist as well. The producer saw Rodriguez as an oracle, a songwriter whose gentle touch as a lyricist and singer deserved considerable accolades - not to mention royalties from tens of thousands of unaccounted-for album sales.

But Sugar Man did far more than just revive one artist, or tell one tale. The film's success - it won an Oscar for best documentary and 31 other awards from festivals and film societies around the world - helped encourage producers and distributors to take more chances, move away from Behind the Music-like treatments of superstars and seek out compelling stories of the unheralded and forgotten. Within a year, numerous films about the unheralded and forgotten - the Detroit punk band Death, Muscle Shoals studio musicians and, of course, the background singers of 20 Feet from Stardom - were popping up in theaters beyond the festival circuit. Bendjelloul deserves much of the credit for that. "He was such a great human being and exceptionally talented, to say the least," says Matt Sullivan, founder/co-owner of Light in the Attic Records. "The world lost an incredible person."

Sugar Man also had a profound impact on its star, who had been performing on a limited basis in small clubs since Light in the Attic Records rereleased his two Sussex Records albums, "Cold Fact" and "Coming from Reality," in 2008 and 2009, respectively. He now is booked into major festivals and playing theaters.

Rodriguez performed at Detroit's Masonic Temple Auditorium the day Bendjelloul's body was found, never mentioning his death during the 80-minute concert. Afterward, he spoke briefly to Billboard, calling the news "a shock. He was a very talented man and hardworking artist. He proved it by hitting an Academy Award his first time out."

Trained as a journalist, Bendjelloul was foremost a storyteller. He had worked in his native Sweden producing and directing TV shows on Bjork, among other musicians. He was traveling in search of his next story when he found one in South Africa that was as much about detective work and the anti-apartheid movement as it was the life of a musician from the late 1960s who had largely disappeared from public view. "In six minutes," Bendjelloul often said of his first exposure to the Rodriguez story, "I heard the best story I had ever heard in my life. I don't know if I will ever find a story as good as that one."

In the end, it will be the one story for which Bendjelloul will be remembered.

Additional reporting by Gary Graff.


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