Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary about the greatest music story you’ve never heard. Rodriguez released two albums which became hits in South Africa, but the South African government censored them. Rumors had it that Rodriguez killed himself on stage. Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul investigated these stories and delved into the music industry that screwed Rodriguez out of any rights and royalties for his albums. As for the death rumors, Bendjelloul found Rodriguez alive and living in Detroit, making him the focal point of the second half of the film. We sat down with Bendjelloul to discuss the film, his first feature after several television documentary productions.
CraveOnline: How different do you think the movie would have been if you hadn’t located Rodriguez?
Malik Bendjelloul: Yeah, I was thinking about that. At some stage it was even maybe it doesn’t really matter if he’s in the movie, because the mystery is also a good narrative. So when Rodriguez decided, “I’m not going to be in the movie, I’m not going to be in the movie,” it was only when the film was finished he said, “Sure, let’s do this. You can keep me in the film.” But I always had a backup plan that if he refuses, could the film have been done without him? Yeah, it could but it’s much, much, much nicer when we have this beautiful man in the movie.
Is it a spoiler that he’s here today and once people know that I’ve interviewed him?
It is a spoiler. It is a spoiler but it works pretty well, the reveal that he’s alive. There’s so much stuff happening in this movie, I hope people will enjoy it, some people even more when they know.
You had done a documentary on the Paul McCartney death conspiracy.
Yeah, I did. I did a lot of music stuff. I did docs on Kraftberk???? and Bjork. I did a little thing about Paul McCartney.
That one was obviously much more well known, but are there parallels to how a story like that can be believed?
Very much so. A lot of people know that story that there were rumors that Paul McCartney died and there were a lot of clues if you looked at the records that he actually was dead. It’s true. It’s very similar. That was absolutely fabricated. There was nothing true of that story and the same here. Rodriguez was absolutely alive but people in South Africa took it as a fact that he had died. When those detectives in South Africa started out searching for him, they didn’t search for whether he was dead or alive, they searched for how he died. Did he commit suicide by shooting himself dead on stage or did he burn himself dead on stage or what happened?
He thinks the self-immolation might have been a misinterpretation of the phrase “blaze of glory.”
Right, yeah. There were stories that he sang the song “Forget It.” That’s the last song he supposedly sang. He sang the words, “Thanks for your time, you can thank me for mine” and after that said, “Forget it.” Then he put a gun to his head and shot his brains out. That’s the story.
Once you experience his music, let alone meeting him, you know what a peaceful guy he is. How would you even imagine something so violent?
No, they had no idea who he was. They had seen the photograph on the records but they had no idea who this man was and what kind of personality he had. They had nothing, they had nothing. What happens when you have no information? You start to make up stories? That was what happened.
How does it feel that the soundtrack to Searching for Sugar Man is the new Rodriguez album?
Yeah, that’s a crazy thing. That it’s actually basically the third album that Rodriguez has released. We asked if he’d make a new song for the album but it didn’t come through. Who knows? One day he might do that.
A lot of the film, independent of Rodriguez, deals with the music industry, and what it was like back then with regards to rights. Is that an important topic for you?
In this case it’s pretty extreme. The mystery about this man is bigger than we see in the film. I interviewed all the producers of the record in Austin, “Did you get any royalties?” They said, “No, we didn’t.” “Were you supposed to get any royalties?” “Of course, normally the producer gets as much as the artist.” “Is this normal?” “No, this is absolutely not normal. This is the only time in our career.” And they made 100s of albums. “This is the only time in our career that this has happened. Even if they said that it didn’t sell, we would still get a statement. I’ve seen statements for $1.50 or a pound and a half for stuff that didn’t sell. I’ve never seen any statements for Rodriguez’s records.” So the truth is, this is a strange story. How it can be, we don’t know?
Is it hard to explain those technical industry issues for regular audiences?
To be honest with you, it could be a complete 90 minute film on its own if you really want to dig in, because it’s a pretty exciting story what happened to Rodriguez’ money. It’s a lot of companies involved, it’s a lot of pretty exciting stuff but that would be another film. I tried to keep close to the feelings and the emotions in this movie. I tried to skip the homework, what happened to money and lawyers, blah blah blah. I tried to keep it to the real people and the real stories, the pure essence of the story that I thought was very much an emotional story, not as much a story about legal stuff and money. That would be another film I thought.
Is it a political film about the South African censorship?
Yes. We do go into that subject. We see how they scratched the records. For me, I never heard about the way the South African censorship really worked. I heard a lot about East Germany and the Nazis and Stalin, but South Africa we don’t know too much about so it’s pretty interesting.
It’s really hands on censorship, to physically scratch all the discs.
It wasn’t really each copy, just the library copy at the radio. It’s very hands on. It’s a very brutal way of making sure that you can’t even play the record.
What extras do you have for the DVD?
We have plenty of stuff I hope. I haven’t done it yet but I’m actually looking through it right now and I think it’s going to be quite a lot of interesting stuff. I filmed Rodriguez’s first show ever in America. I filmed Rodriguez’s first show ever in Detroit. For a very long time, that was the end of the film. After the climax in South Africa, we saw what happened today for like 10 minutes. But in the end I was like no, it’s impossible to get a climax bigger than the scenes from South Africa. It will kill the movie so I inevitably had to kill those babies, but they might be in the DVD extras. You’ll see Rodriguez perform for the first time.
Does the story continue enough for an update, or a follow-up film?
Yeah, I guess so. I don’t think I’m going to do that but maybe someone else is going to do that. The story of Rodriguez is a pretty big story. Now things happen that change his life right now.
Was this more investigative journalism than your other films?
It was much more profoundly me. Before I made this film I never spent more than a month, maybe two months on a project. Now I spent four years on this film. So it was very much more investigative. I really edited for maybe two years because I knew that the story is the best story I ever heard. It’s an Oscar level story as a story, but then the film is another thing. Then you need to make a film that is as good as the story. I don’t know if I was even the man. It was my first movie. I was an unexperienced filmmaker and I don’t know if I even came close to the potential to tell this story, but I did as good as I could and it seems like people enjoy it.
How long were early cuts of the film?
They were always the same length actually. I knew it was going to be less than an hour and a half. I think most films suffer when they get too long. There’s no reason to make a film longer than that if you don’t really have something fantastic to tell. Most things you can tell a little bit shorter.
This one is fantastic enough to tell a longer version.
Yeah, but I think to ask people to sit down and shut up for 82 minutes is pretty much all. I think you should be careful with people’s times. Maybe they should be with their kids instead of a movie so long.
What are you doing next?
I don’t know. I don’t know. I have a few ideas. I don’t know really exactly which film to do but the list is pretty long already. I have like 40 because when you work for four years, you always read something in the newspaper, you put it down on the list but then after four years, that list is pretty long.
Are they still music related ideas?
There are a few ones that are music related. Not all of them. I think it’s only the best possible story. It doesn’t matter if it’s music or if it’s anything. It’s just a really great story that you want to hear.
Was it hard to select which Rodriguez songs would be best for the movie?
Mm hmm. I tried every one. I tried to include every single possible variation of that, because he actually made a lot of great songs. I never had a shortage of great songs. My favorite songs of Rodriguez’s, one of my big favorites is “Like Janis.” It’s going to be on the soundtrack but it’s not in the film.