Rodriguez, the singer whose story is at the heart of Malik Bendjelloul’s Oscar-nominated “Searching for Sugar Man,” has festival dates lined up at Coachella, Glastonbury and Primavera in Spain that will follow tours of South Africa and Australia.
The new dates are part of astonishing rediscovery of Rodriguez, now 70, who made two albums for Clarence Avant’s Sussex label in the early 1970s that were flops everywhere except in South Africa where his legend grew along with his record sales. Bendjelloul’s film, which Sony is releasing on DVD Jan. 22, chronicles the myths and realities of Rodriguez’s story and his 1998 concerts in South Africa.
“It’s a different level that we’re at now,” Rodriguez said during a recent visit to Los Angeles to perform on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.” “I can’t imagine it getting much busier. This is pretty busy. You gotta stay balanced and normalized, pace yourself. At this late date I have a new perspective on things because of the success of the music now.”
The pace has picked up dramatically in the last year for Rodriguez, who had done a few cub performances per year since the 2008 when Light in the Attic rereleased his two albums, Cold Facts and Coming From Reality. Rodriguez appeared at film festivals such as Sundance and SXSW in early 2012 and performed solo at most of his shows. He has been using various bands to back him since moving up to larger clubs and small theaters in the fall.
“We did 13 dates in the UK, all 3,000 seaters, and when we go back it will be Royal Albert Hall,” Rodriguez says.
“60 Minutes,” which did a piece on Rodriguez prior to the film opening, has contacted him again about possibly chronicling his tour of South Africa in February.
Besides the Oscar nomination, “Searching for Sugar Man” is up for a BAFTA, Producers Guild and WGA awards. It won the International Documentary Association’s best feature and best music awards and was honored at Sundance and film festivals in Los Angeles Film Festival, Melbourne and Moscow. The National Board of Review named it best documentary.
A Swede, Bendelljoul and his film received six nominations from the Swedish national film awards, the Guldbagge, including best film and musical score.
Bendelljoul and Rodriguez spoke about the year since the film premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
Malik, it’s safe to say you escorted this film around the world for the first half of the year. How many places did you go, what were your favorites and would you do it again?
MB: Maybe 25, something like that. I really liked Traverse City in Michigan, Deaville in France, the American film festival in Normandy and L.A. was a good one. Next time I won’t do it the same way, but for a first director it is a lot of fun.
The film and its soundtrack (released by Sony Legacy) create a definite image of your music for new listeners. Is that having an effect on the songs you do in concert?
R: The thing is I don’t like to be so scripted — it has to be real. Over the year, it’s been a whole transition. A lot of the songs (on the albums) have full orchestration that I don’t do. I just do the ones I can and covers just to show I can play. I did the (“Late Show with David) Letterman with a 25-piece orchestra and last night’s performance on Jay Leno (with a house band). They wanted to do that — it’s all out of my hands.
The soundtrack is definitely not a chronological retelling of the Rodriguez story. How did you choose the songs and the order?
MB: The strange thing with the songs was I started to edit to one song and it worked well. Then I asked for another song and the songs are so good they fit so well. I tried to get the right emotions at the right time. It’s about rhythm and pace and emotional feeling and there are a few (tracks) I use a lot. It’s very, very emotional without being sentimental.
Dennis Coffey and Steve Rowland produced Rodriguez’s two albums — one in Detroit and one in London — but they defer to Rodriguez’s genius in the film. What were their roles?
MB: The reason the albums survive is the strong production. We did the first one within a month — it was very quick. The second, we were there in England 25 days, but we were in the studio all the time. He got all the musicians, chose the instruments. Dennis is still a top guitarist and the way he talks, you know he knows what he’s talking about. He’s another Detroit product. It’s always nice to say that.
One of the key points of the film is that there were a lot of LPs and CDs sold in South Africa but the money never made its way back to Rodriguez. Has anything been resolved?
MB: I think I did what I could to know the exact figures and I called all the organizations. The record labels were pretty established — they were the best distributor in Africa — so it’s weird. They say they sent money to Clarence and Clarence says he didn’t get any money and I believe him as well. I don’t feel he is someone who would do something (evil). I asked a South African lawyer, a guy (involved) in the case of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight,’ and he said he could solve this case, but it would take three years and cost a lot of money. It’s that complicated.
Obviously you had to leave some things out and, of course, there have been 14 years since the end point of the documentary. Are there other stories to be told here?
MB: There is a lot of stuff not in the film. For example, what happens to Rodriguez’s royalties today (from music) he sells in South Africa. In a way, that’s an even better story. I asked for an interview with the company in England and he absolutely didn’t want to speak about it. In 2008, when I met the company that sells his music today, PT Music, I asked the managing director (about sales). I don’t think it’s more than 25,000 albums, but Rodriguez didn’t see a penny from those albums. So I asked how do you pay and he says it’s the guy in England who didn’t want to speak about it.
R: Malik did the research and asked the hard questions as an independent of his own volition. That speaks a lot for filmmakers.
At Q&As, filmgoers always seem bewildered that after the South Africa concerts you returned home to Detroit. Still there?
R: I’m still in the same house. We put in new windows on the north side so it will be warmer. Triple-paned glass. I’m still into renovation.
Will you keep touring after the festival dates?
R: The offers are becoming obscene. We’re kicking around ideas. I even suggested to the booking agent (Booking Agency’s Christian Bernhardt) that we do a marijuana tour and go to all 16 states that have decriminalized weed. We’re thinking of ideas and he’s going along with them.