Rodriguez paid the best possible, and unspoken, tribute he could to the late “Searching For Sugar Man” director Malik Bendjelloul on Tuesday night: He played a show.
The singer-songwriter who became an international icon thanks to Bendjelloul’s Academy Award-winning documentary, learned of the filmmaker’s death in Sweden not long before his home town concert Tuesday at Detroit’s Masonic Temple Auditorium. Rodriguez did not say anything to the crowd during the 80-minute, 20-song performance, but backstage afterwards, he told Billboard that the news was “a shock. I just found out about it a couple of hours ago. He was a very talented man and hard-working artist — he proved it by hitting an Academy Award his first time out. My deepest condolences to his family. Rest in peace.”
Some of Rodriguez’s family members added that the family had lit candles in Bendjelloul’s memory prior to the show, and longtime Rodriguez booster (and occasional touring guitarist) Matthew Smith remembered Bendjelloul as “a really nice, sweet guy. He spent a lot of time here (in Detroit) and we took him to a lot of places and showed him a lot of stuff that didn’t make the film.”
The concert certainly showed that Bendjelloul’s achievement in raising Rodriguez’s profile was well-merited. Driven by a hot new band of overseas musicians, particularly versatile British guitarist Ed Coonash, Rodriguez played a tight, focused show that sported favorites such as “Climb Up on My Music,” “I Wonder,” “Forget It,” “…The Establishment Blues,” “Sugar Man” and a moving “To Whom It May Concern” — his usual show-closer but which took on additional resonance for those who knew about Bendjelloul’s death. He also included some covers that both complemented his original songs and illuminated their roots, including Nina Simone’s “Love Me or Leave Me,” Little Richard’s “Lucille,” Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Frank Sinatra’s “Learnin’ the Blues.”
“I thought I’d never heard a better story in my life and would never hear a better story,” Bendjelloul — who spent about 50 days total in Detroit over the course of six visits — said of Rodriguez’s tale back in 2012. “It was like somebody had written this wonderful script, except it was a real story. And it was a blessed story; every time I lifted a stone there was another gold coin. It was so much richer than I ever could have imagined.”
Although Swedish authorities have not revealed an official cause of death, Bendjelloul’s brother told a Swedish newspaper on Wednesday that the director committed suicide. Johar Bendjelloul told Aftonbladet that his younger brother had recently become depressed.