Anyone who has seen the trailer for Searching For Sugar Man knows that the title character has indeed been found (but there's much more to his unbelievable life story than that). If you'd prefer to keep Sugar Man a mystery until after you see the film, please bookmark this interview to refer back to after you've had your own discovery of this man's unbelievable story. In our age of instant music sharing, it seems like any artist can get recognition with a hip enough music video or high amount of followers on Twitter. Searching for Sugar Man, directed by Malik Bendjelloul, is a documentary about Sixto Rodriguez, a great talent from the early 70s (think poppier Bob Dylan) who slipped through the cracks of notoriety (at least in America). It is the story of a man's disappearance, as well as it is his unbelievable return. Searching for Sugar Man isn't just a great documentary, it's also a very persuading recommendation to check out a musical artist whose recognition is long overdue.
Like many viewers will experience, I immediately became a fan of Rodriguez and his music when watching this documentary. Thus, when I was invited to interview not just the director but the unearthed legend himself, I took this as an opportunity to talk to Rodriguez not just about the film, but his music as well. What ensued was one my most wild interviews, largely between the charismatic Rodriguez and myself, humbly listening.
Searching For Sugar Man opens in Chicago on August 10. Malik, how much was Sixto's story inspiring you to get through this project? How many moments were there of you just listening to Rodriguez's music while slaving over the film?
Malik Bendjelloul: I have heard his songs a thousand times, probably a bit more. You don't grow tired of them. You understand it, after a while. There are other songs [by other artists] that you really grow tired of after a while, and these are not them. But making the film did take time. Every single moment needs to lead somewhere, and you need to think about every single second, every single word so that it means something.
One of the songs that I really enjoyed hearing in the film ...
Sixto Rodriguez: Oh, I just want to say - "I Wonder" [from "Cold Fact"] is "Song of the Month," according to Esquire. Malik showed me at the airport. What song were you talking about?
Rodriguez: [singing the beginning of the chorus] Streeeetboy ...
Bendjelloul: Is it your favorite?
That one, and I have to say "Crucify Your Mind" as well. As soon as I saw the film, I picked up my guitar and I tried to figure it out.
Rodriguez: I have musicians in my audience. And I'm in tune because I know I'm talking to musicians.
[Rodriguez takes out his guitar from an unassuming guitar case.]
Rodriguez: I have this in tune when I go on stage, but this is what I play [he gives the guitar one strum]. This is quieter, and the nylon strings allow you to practice more. Was that the guitar you were playing in the film?
Rodriguez: Yes, it's one of my favorites. It's a cheap guitar, $600. I think if you saw [Bob] Dylan's early guitars, you can figure he wrote some good stuff on them. But, I saw Donovan at Sundance, he give us his blessing, and I had a five-minute clip with him. But he's more Donovan now than he was Donovan then. He was there when the Beatles started out. And I got a chance to see James McCartney, and Paolo Nutini. Paolo has covered you before.
Rodriguez: He's covered me, and we're talking about a major concert, and it's all in planning. I met Paolo Nutini at the Byron Bay Festival in Australia. And the thing, Byron Bay is where the sun first hits Australia. It's a huge festival. I've been getting out and about.
What's the biggest crowd you have played so far?
Rodriguez: I guess that would be in Australia, which was 7,000 seats.
Talking about one of my new favorite songs, I have to ask - who wrote the violin part at the end of "Sandrevan Lullaby"?
Rodriguez: You know what you're listening to right there? A Stradivarius. Let me give more detail about that. The second album ["Coming from Reality"] is full production. Steve Rowland is responsible for producing Jerry Lee Lewis, he hung out with Elvis Presley and James Dean, and dated Natalie Wood. He arranged everything, the violins, the harps and cellos. He had the Stradivarius. He played for the London Symphony Orchestra. That's all Steve Rowland, he's the producer just Malik is the director of this film, and also the editor, and the animator. So there's a lot of elements that go into a making a film. Voltaire said that "The pen is mightier than the sword," and I think that the camera is mightier than the pen. You're going to be performing Letterman [on August 14].
Rodriguez: Let me say this. They're talking about doing it with the strings, which they don't do usually. Alec Baldwin is hooked up with ... there's a lot of influences happening through other people. We did Tribeca Film Festival, so this film is attracting other filmmakers - "Who's this guy with a two-person crew?" This is quite an achievement for Mr. Bendjelloul.
Malik, did you insist on getting the symmetry with the tracking shot of Rodriguez walking and your animation?
Bendjelloul: I first shot, and then the animation.
Rodriguez: [To me] You were keenly watching. I was keenly watching and listening. And thank you, Malik, for introducing us to this man. I was with two friends last night, and they started playing "Cold Fact." I didn't tell them I was talking to Rodriguez the next day, but it's very exciting that people can be interested in Rodriguez's music even just by seeing this film's trailer.
Rodriguez: Well one of the reasons, and I have to explain, that this film is getting such raves, is that this film was bought unseen by Sony Pictures Classics. Sony Legacy picked up the music, and did the soundtrack. You can have all the talent, but if you don't have that kind of showcasing, it would be ignored.
Bendjelloul: He's on top of the world now.
Rodriguez: I am, and thanks to the film. But I'm a musical political. That's why I bring my guitar with me, so that I can remember. I'm not an actor. Some girl told me that she thought musicians were just actors. But I said, "Well, you can have a guitar and act like you're playing it."
Quick Questions with Sixto Rodriguez and Malik Bendjelloul
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
Rodriguez: I didn't have breakfast. Bendjelloul: I had oatmeal, and a bagel.
If you could be someone else for 24 hours, who would you be?
Rodriguez: Come back to me on this one ... [minutes later, he responds] They say Ingmar Bergman is the godfather of Swedish film and is Malik Bendjelloul is the godson of that same group. As to the idea of fanciful thinking, maybe in rock and roll, the terminology has been developed. I liked the interview with the Rolling Stones when they said, "When we started out, there was no touring industry." And that was true, because they created it. They started touring very early. All of these words in rock and roll, you can check it off as ... Bob Geldof, social worker, Willie Nelson, social worker. And you asked me, "Why would I be?" I would be mayor of the world. My platform would be peace, prosperity, pursuit of happiness, and how about a little justice?
What's something you can't wait to do?
Rodriguez: I want to mail a package to my family in Detroit. I was just on stage at a festival. Van Morrison, and Ray Davies from the Kinks were there. Mr. Bendjelloul just did Moscow a week ago, and just finished the Hamptons where Alec Baldwin was in his audience twice. But because of his energy, I'm getting a ride.
Age of first kiss?
Rodriguez: I remember it very clearly. I was in high school. Some girl decided to go across to the park and sneak out of the building. I snuck out as well. She kissed me, and I kissed back. She tasted like cigarettes [laughs]. Bendjelloul: 16.