One of Q‘s films of 2012, Searching For Sugar Man recounted the heart-warming tale of singer-songwriter Rodriguez. A commercial flop when he released his music in the early 1970s, he became one of the biggest artists in South Africa… without him – or the outside world – knowing. With the documentary just released on DVD, director Malik Bandjellou explains how he became interested in Rodriguez‘s story and why the internet age means it was probably rock and roll’s last great untold tale.
I was travelling around Africa with a camera looking for stories for Swedish television. I quit my job and just went on this trip. In Cape Town I met Sugar [fan and record shop owner Steve “Sugar” Segerman] and he told me the Rodriguez story, it was one of six I got from the trip. I went home and the story just stuck in my brain, the others didn’t, so I started to feel it could be something longer.
The whole thing was the South African experience made it unique. It was two stories: one was how South Africa was cut off from the word and this could happen; and the other was this beautiful resurrection. How they’re connected with each other for me was the story because it’s unlikely this kind of story could happen now. There was no internet, no medium to connect these two elements up. For that reason a story like this will probably never happen again.
South Africa was an isolated country, there was no cultural exchange. I’d never really heard about the liberal whites in South Africa – we all thought the people there were crazy, horrible – but of course there were people who weren’t and were trying to do something. Plus you had serious censorship. I’d never heard of records being scratched with a sharp tool to stop people playing certain songs on radio. It was really brutal. The regime were siblings of Nazi Germany.
Equally, Rodriguez was a man who was living a man living in a house in Detroit with no telephone. He was isolated too. So as well as the darker story of South Africa, you do get a sense of this nice, Be who you want to be story, with Rodriguez in the film. There’s his lost masterpiece and the fact he refused to change his name when it first came out even though the label thought he looked wrong for the time, yet eventually he became bigger than The Beatles in this country he’d never been to.
He’s a very humble man. Rodriguez lacks ego and if you lack an ego it’s hard to talk about yourself. He didn’t like being in the limelight, other than being onstage. He really is an artist. He doesn’t like being centre of attention, which is a beautiful thing and maybe why he didn’t become this famous person – he just wanted to sing. He didn’t want to do the rock star thing, he was just who he was. He kept saying to me when we were making the film, You don’t need me Malik the other guys can tell the story.
I think Rodriguez would have become successful any way because his songs are that good, so I guess all I could take credit for in terms of his current success – he’s playing his biggest gigs yet – is that it’s all happening now. He was touring already, but the film has been an injection into that.
What’s beautiful to me is that following the film, he’s now writing a new chapter to this amazing story.