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It’s the kind of story that makes for great fiction, except that it’s an unbelievable truth.
A sharp-eared Detroit musician with a knack for writing incisive roots-pop songs shoots for stardom in the early ‘70s. He releases a couple of albums, but they’re virtually ignored. Legend has it that the singer killed himself on stage one night, and that was the beginning and the end of the man known as Sixto Rodriguez.
Except that Rodriguez wasn’t dead. He had disappeared to live an unassuming family life in Detroit, working as a demolition man. He also had no idea that in South Africa, where apartheid reigned, he was a hero to the masses.
All of it started when director and TV documentarian Malik Bendjelloul, visiting South Africa looking for stories, wandered into a record shop and heard the lore of Rodriguez, leading to the thrilling, heartwarming, endlessly fascinating documentary, “Searching for Sugar Man.”
Bendjelloul spent years working on the project, which eventually cost less than $1 million, but started with him cleaning out his bank account to finance the first $75,000 of the film.
Since “Sugar Man” – its title taken from one of Rodriguez’s songs – began its slow rollout this summer, Rodriguez’s popularity has sprouted worldwide. The soundtrack, released on Sony Legacy, chronicles his mostly unheard gems, one of which he played on David Letterman’s show a few weeks ago.
And the singer, now 70, is being booked into 2,000-seat venues in England and is playing various clubs and theaters in the U.S. through November.
Bendjelloul and Rodriguez chatted recently about the film.
Q. How do you feel about the attention this movie is getting?
A. It’s fantastic, wonderful, overwhelming. It was made in such a primitive way, on a kitchen table in Stockholm. The big thing is, it’s so well-deserved.
Q. You spent 1,000 days working on this. How do you feel now that it’s out there?
A. It was a very hard production. I didn’t get a cent – I used all my savings, borrowed money from friends. The main investors changed from one day to the other. I had to give up because I couldn’t afford to make this movie. Toward the end, the stuff that remained [to be finished] was the animations and score and I couldn’t afford to pay people and you can’t ask people to do stuff for free. So, all of the music that isn’t Rodriguez, I did it, I played the instruments. But I was obsessed by this story and I fell in love with it too much. It was a gold mine, the most beautiful story I heard.
Q. How did you find the guys in South Africa who told you about Rodriquez?
A. I used to work for a TV show and I quit and went traveling with my camera, looking for stories to sell to Swedish TV. When I was in Capetown I met “Sugar” [Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, a local record store owner who had been trying to find Rodriguez] and they told me the story and I was like, ‘This is like fate.’ I had heard good stories before, but when I started to tell the story to friends, the reaction I got, I started to feel that this story needs to be told.
Q. You must have been thrilled at the reception at Sundance [the film won the Special Jury Prize and World Cinema Audience Award].
A. We had some crazy screenings; we had six, seven ovations in a row. Earlier, I didn’t think the movie would be finished. Now it seems worthwhile. It was a blessing…and the music was that good..
Q. What do you think is the most gripping part of this story, the reason it’s so heartwarming?
A. It seems like people are emotionally attached to it. It’s a Cinderella story, but she didn’t have as good a soundtrack. When [fans] see Rodriquez perform, it’s like Elvis come back from the dead. They wouldn’t buy tickets to his live shows at first because they didn’t believe it was him, that he still existed. It’s amazing. Most music artists’ careers slow down as they get older; he’s a guy who is in reverse.
Q. Are you happy Malik made this movie?
A. I am, and happy that he’s getting so much attention for it. I was kind of skeptical at first. I had such an ordinary life and I didn’t see how he could turn it around. I kind of resisted, at the end I gave in.
Q. The film has gotten a lot of attention all around the world, which must be a weird feeling for you.
A. Since January at Sundance, it’s been so much. Lo and behold, there was Alec Baldwin at Hamptons [International Film Festival]. I did a gig in England and Bob Geldof was in the audience. Now they’re talking about Madison Square Garden. I don’t bring this up, they [industry people] do!
Q. When you disappeared from music and became a demolition man, did you still stay connected to music in any way?
A. I always played music – I just left the scene. I would go to the library and read Billboard. Music is a great discipline, it’s a business.
Q. When you were writing and playing, who were you listening to?
A. I’ve done the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s… I love the material from those decades and Detroit has a lot of music coming through from Canada.
Q. Do you still write or record?
A. You don’t stop writing, you never stop playing music. I do covers when I play live – I enjoy trying to duplicate others’ material. I pick obscure things like Lou Rawls’ Chicago tune [‘Goin’ to Chicago Blues’].
Q. How are you handling all of the attention as a result of the movie?
A. There’s no blueprint for this now. I think I do appreciate it more now. I’m more conscious and coherent than I was at that time. I was ready for the world, but I don’t think the world was ready for me.
“Searching for Sugar Man” opens Friday at Tara Theater. Rated PG. 85 minutes.
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene