By Simon Miraudo
October 2, 2012
Reports of folk legend Rodriguez's death have been greatly exaggerated. The Detroit local - considered an equal to Bob Dylan amongst music insiders - released the album Cold Fact in 1970, but it soon sank without a trace. Rumours that the singer killed himself during a gig eventually evolved into the widely agreed upon truth, and he became a peculiar footnote in American rock history. That is, until bootlegs of Cold Fact found their way to South Africa in 1991, and they spread like wildfire during that nation's most pivotal political moment. Now bigger than Elvis, some inquisitive South Africans followed the money to see who was collecting Rodriguez's posthumous royalties, and discover once and for all whether he had shot himself or set himself alight on stage. They found something even more spectacular: Rodriguez, in the flesh. This stranger than fiction tale is recounted in Malik Bendjelloul's documentary Searching for Sugar Man.
I spoke to Bendjelloul about this shocking story, the multiple myths of his death, as well as the role Triple J played in his 'resurrection'.
SM: What is it that you discovered first: the music of Rodriguez, or the legend of his supposed death and resurrection in South Africa?
MB: It was the legend. I heard a story, and it was the best story I'd ever heard in my life. It was like a Cinderella story, and it was true. Then I heard the music. I was worried, because the comparisons they made in South Africa was that this was better than Dylan; this was better than The Rolling Stones. I said, "Come on, you can't. Of course you think that, because you have this personal bond." But then I realised it wasn't just this fandom. People in the streets, everyone felt that way. Now when I listen to the music, I think, "It makes sense, even though the claims are ridiculous and bold." But no, it's really good music.
SM: Before you met him, what kind of perception of the man had been built in your mind? Did he defy those expectations when you finally sat down with him?
MB: He did, very much. He was almost too good to be true; the way he lived his life and the way he was a humble man. No ego and no bitterness and no need for any kind of... You know, everyone who's interested in money also need to sacrifice those things. But Rodriguez didn't. He said, "I am who I am, and I'll always be who I am, and I don't care about the money." He was working as a construction worker in downtown Detroit - a roofer for 30 years - because it allowed him to be free. He was a self-employed roofer. If people were stupid, he said, "Fine, I'm not going to do the job." He didn't need stuff. In that way, it's very inspiring. And then, after 40 years of really hard manual labour, he learns the music he made 30 years earlier was... he was not just big, he was the biggest superstar in South Africa. That's just a heart-warming story.
SM: Absolutely. I don't think anyone will disagree with that. I understand for much of the time you spent making the documentary, you were unable to get financing. Were you inspired by Rodriguez, and the way he sacrificed and the way he didn't put an emphasis on money, to plough through the four year period?
MB: I think, yeah, I really was. I really was. There was something resonant in the story that I'm sure affected me in quite a deep way.
SM: Did you ever discover where the money from all the record sales in South Africa ever went?
MB: No, that's a mystery that still remains. What happened to that money? Rodriguez today still sells records in South Africa, and he still doesn't get any money. And I know that the money does not go to Clarence [Avant, former head of Sussex Records], as he's not involved in that part at all. It goes to another label and... it's weird. I can't say that anyone's doing something wrong, but I can say that Rodriguez didn't know he was famous because he never even saw a [residuals] statement. Normally you get statements when you don't receive anything.
SM: That's such a shame. What about the origins of his on-stage suicide stories? Did he perpetuate them at all?
MB: No, I think it's just word of mouth. Folklore. Urban myths. People fill that gap by making up a story, and if it's a good story, then it'll spread. In the end, that became the common knowledge among South Africans. They all knew he had died in some strange way, but there were conflicting stories on how he died. And that was the reason why these two South African fans started a search. They weren't looking for the Sugar Man; they were looking for how he died.
SM: In looking up the film, I discovered that Rodriguez's Cold Fact album was actually 5x Platinum here in Australia. In the film, you make a good argument for why he became so popular in South Africa. Do you have any theories as to why - besides the quality of his music - he spoke to Australians too?
MB: I really think it is the quality of the music. I think in those places where he was heard, by accident... Why wasn't he heard in America? Why was he heard in South Africa? I think in those places, a radio DJ falls in love with it; that's what happened in South Africa, and that's what happened in Australia. There was a radio DJ on Triple J called Holger Brockman who fell in love with the album and started to push it really hard. And when you do that with music, and play it, and people get to listen to it, they fall in love it's that good. That's still the reason. If you're lucky, if you find the little spark that ignites it, then it's gonna hit hard. That's why right now it's crazy times. In one week* Rodriguez is going to be on David Letterman. Who knows what can happen?
SM: That's pretty wild. This has clearly been a passion project of yours. Is there anything else you're similarly intrigued in? That makes you want to go on the hunt for answers in another doco?
MB: Yes, very much so. It really gives you inspiration for doing more. It's a wonderful thing to tell a story and be in the creative process of making a movie. It's a great, great place to be. I prefer that to what I'm doing right now even [laughs]. It's beautiful where we are in this hotel; It's a great time taking it to festivals. But to be in the creative process and do a movie, or do anything creative - if you're a painters, doing sculptures, if you're a writer, if you're doing music, it's the same thing - it's a very, very fulfilling thing to do.
Searching for Sugar Man plays the Perth International Arts Festival from November 25 to December 9, 2012. It is also screening in select states.