Rodriguez had a phrase for Malik Bendjelloul and his film “Searching for Sugar Man.” He used it while we were eating lunch at SXSW in March 2012; he would use it again 11 months later over a meal in Los Angeles the day it would win one of its 32 awards.
“It’s his story,” Sixto Rodriguez would say of the director who won the Best Documentary Oscar for the film on an unknown chapter in the Detroit musician’s life.
Bendjelloul, who died May 13 of an apparent suicide at age 36 in Stockholm, took an anecdote he heard while on a trip to South Africa and turned a combination of legend and fact into art. His storytelling introduced an overlooked artist to a global audience, telling a story that could only exist in the pre-Internet world, a story about an artist who made two albums in the early 1970s and seemingly disappeared.
Countless filmmakers make documentaries, do the required promotional activities and move on to the next project. For Bendjelloul, making the film was only the first step. After Sony Pictures Classics purchased “Sugar Man” at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival Bend, he became a proselytizer for Rodriguez and his music. Together and separately the two toured film festivals around the world for more than a year and as much as the filmmaker wanted people to experience his documentary, he had even higher hopes for Rodriguez’s music; Bendjelloul 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.
His biggest frustration in making the film — and he expressed this on numerous occasions — was never being able to find the money trail between Clarence Avant’s Sussex Records that released the albums in the States and assigned international rights and Johannesburg.
A director of music documentaries for Swedish television, “Sugar Man” came about after Bendjelloul had struck out on his own, looking for a story that needed to be told. He traveled in the Americas and Africa and had perhaps a half-dozen stories that could make decent films before he heard the story of how Rodriguez’s two albums, “Cold Fact” and “Coming From Reality,” had built enormous fan bases in South Africa during the Apartheid era while the singer had remained a complete mystery. Legend had it that he had died onstage, but a couple of fans’ detective work not only led them to Detroit, but landed him five sell-out arena concerts in South Africa in 1998.
Bendjelloul cleared numerous hurdles in making “Sugar Man”: He ran out of money during filming and shot part of the picture on an iPhone; he needed music and wrote the score; and animated segments to finish the the film while waiting to secure historical footage. (The Sundance committee found the animation charming and he chose to leave his drawings of Detroit streets in the finished film.). And he had a reluctant star in Rodriguez, who required months of cajoling to appear on camera. “I’m only in it for seven minutes,” Rodriguez was fond of saying.
In social and interview settings, Bendjelloul always deferred to Rodriguez. He had the exuberance of a kid constantly raising his hand in class to answer a question, but if Rodriguez were to speak, he’d immediately stop and listen, as intently as an interviewer looking to make a sequel.
“Searching for Sugar Man” was very much Bendjelloul’s story. He goes from the ’60s to the edge of the millennium, never reaching Rodriguez’s small scale career revival after the Light in the Attic label rereleased his two albums in 2008 and 2009. Bendjelloul had printed the legend; together they would forge a new chapter.
“Searching for Sugar Man” had a unique effect on film making and the tandem marketing of a film and a music career. “Sugar Man” was acquired and released at a time when the only music docs to receive significant theatrical releases were stories about superstar, Pearl Jam, U2 and Bob Marley being the subjects of “Sugar Man’s” contemporaries. Within a year, numerous films about the unheralded and forgotten — 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.
While “Sugar Man” was rolling out in the United States in the summer of 2012, Rodriguez was touring, playing larger venues and getting on festival bills that would have never been possible pre-“Sugar Man.” His tour schedule was such that he was able to perform in L.A. the night before the film won its BAFTA, but unable to travel to Hollywood for the Academy Awards. Without recording new music, Rodriguez continues to be booked in theaters such as L.A.’s Greek on May 30 and at festivals such as Sasquatch over the Memorial Day weekend.
During the run of “Sugar Man,” I had the pleasure of meeting with Bendjelloul and Rodriguez five or six times. An animated speaker, the passion that Rodriguez’s fans had in South Africa for his music was the magnet for his skills as a story teller. His biggest fear concerned the musical tastes of those South Africans — Bendjelloul did not care for much of the music they liked and he feared that as much as he loved the story, he might not like Rodriguez’s music. Fortunately, he not only fell in love with the albums, he could not believe Rodriguez was not in a pantheon that included Marvin Gaye and Bill Withers.
No matter what, though, it always came back to the story.
“In six minutes,” he 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 Malik Bendjelloul will be remembered for.