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Capone talks to musician Rodriguez and director Malik Bendjelloul about the fantastic music documentary SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

If you want to have a truly unique movie-going experience, then don't read this interview or any reviews of SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN before you go see it. If you do either, the film's fantastic central mystery will be ruined, although after having seen it twice myself, it's just as compelling and moving a work however you see it.

Director Malik Bendjelloul, who has a history of making many documentary shorts (many of which feature interviews with musicians ranging from members of U2 to Bjork), literally went around the world searching for a story to tell. He stumbled upon two South African music lovers who went searching for one of their nation's musical icons, an American folk-rock/protest singer named Rodriguez, who put out two album in the 1970s that virtually no one in America purchased. But somehow his second album became a massive hit in South Africa through tape trading and bootleg copies, outselling the likes of the Beatles and Elvis Presley.

The legend of Rodriguez, of whom there was almost nothing known in terms of his background, has him ending his own life on stage, either by shooting himself or setting himself on fire--depends on who you ask. But that didn't stop this pair of would-be investigators from spending years trying to discover anything they could about this national hero. They plumbed and analyzed his lyrics for clues, and went to extraordinary lengths to learn what they could about Rodriguez, and what they found was more shocking than they could have possibly imagined.

If you read this interview, you're obviously going to discover what these men found out, which is that Rodriguez is very much alive and well and living in the Detroit area. And finding that out is really only half the story of SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN. The first time I saw the film was at the SXSW Film Festival, and then I rewatched it again recently before this interview. To say it was bizarre to be sitting across from Rodriguez would be an understatement, and getting a chance to fill in a few of the blanks of this story was crucial for me. I consider this a must-see film, whether you enjoy the music or not. That's not entirely the point. The movie captures the power of obsession and the way music catches on in some places while it falls flat in others. It's remarkable stuff. So please enjoy my talk with Malik Bendjelloul and Rodriguez…

Malik Bendjelloul: Thank you for the opportunity to interview.

Capone: The honor is all mine. I caught this film at SXSW.

MB: Okay, in Austin.

Capone: I watched it again more recently just to refresh my memory. Are you a little disappointed that people who are going to see it when it actually comes out are maybe not going to have that experience of knowing nothing going in?

MB: Yeah. Yeah.

Capone: I thought that this was a film about a dead person.

MB: Right. What I hope for is that some of them are going to go, because we need them to go there in the first place. And hopefully, they’ll tell their friends, “You should see this movie, but I’m not going to tell you what it’s all about." It is something special when you don’t know anything. But it’s like some people say, “You shouldn’t even make an appearnce like this.” But it’s like TITANIC. We all know the ship is going to sink, but it’s a good story. Even if you know everything, it’s still going to be a pretty amazing story.

Rodriguez: Allegorical, yeah. Thanks.

Capone: I so rarely get to walk into a movie knowing nothing about it. Festivals are the only place that that really gets to happen.

MB: Right, right.

Capone: How did you cross paths with the gentlemen in South Africa?

MB: I had been working for TV for a few years, and then I quit my job, and I traveled for six months in Africa and South America and going to 16 countries looking for stories with a camera. In Capetown, I met Steven Segerman, and he told me this story. I was like, “Jesus Christ!” I had heard a few stories before on this trip, but this was like the best story I had ever heard and ever will hear, I thought and still think. This is a magnificent story. Now, I’m going to try to make a film as good as the story. Maybe it’s impossible then I better work hard, and I’ve spent four years trying to do that.

Capone: So, were you looking for music stories specifically?

MB: No, no. Any stories, just really good stories.

Rodriguez: You’ve had other films. Tell him about those.

MB: The stuff I did before?

Rodriguez: Yes.

Capone: I’ve seen some shorts that you’ve done.

Rodriguez: Yeah, but tell him about the one with the guy running into the walls.

MB: I made this thing about Jon Ronson who wrote "The Men Who Stare at Goats," which was made into a Hollywood movie. I didn’t find the story; he found the story. That kind of story, these are spectacular stories. You fall in love with them, and you like retelling them, and you tell them to friends, and “Have you heard this thing? This crazy thing!”

Capone: I did run across something you did with U2 about a hotel that they owned.

MB: Yeah, yeah, in Dublin.

Capone: I had no context for that whatsoever. Was that an assignment?

MB: That was for the show I used to work for, a Swedish TV program. I worked there for three years doing stuff like that. And I did a lot of music stuff. I did Sting, Rod Stewart, Kraftwerk, Bjork, and Elton John, bigger things.

Capone: The Bjork one, what was that about?

MB: It was more about her whole career.

Capone: OK. I thought that U2 was very funny.

MB: Thank you.

Capone: When you first played Rodriguez’s music, was it important that you connected with the music in some way? Or, would you have made this movie whether or not you cared about the music?

MB: I don’t know, because it was initially as a TV piece.

Capone: OK.

MB: And I would have done the TV piece anyway, but the way it became this bigger thing, it just grew and grew, and I think it was very much because of the music that it was so good. It gave me completely different reason to make the movie. Spreading the music is half of the thing. It’s the best story ever, but to be honest, it’s one of the best albums ever that no one knows of, too.

Capone: Somebody was kind enough to send me the soundtrack, and it’s been in constant rotation in my iPod for about three weeks.

MB: Oh, wonderful.

Rodriguez: Oh good.

Capone: I’ve grown to really like this music.

Rodriguez: Thank you for the airplay.

Capone: In a lot of documentaries, the more that is revealed, the more shocking or sad the story gets. But here, the more that is revealed, the better the story is, and the happier things get.

MB: Yeah, yeah. Yes. It usually gets worse. This is really different.

Rodriguez: Yeah.

Capone: Most of what we see in the movie happened before you even came upon the story, correct?

MB: Yes.

Capone: When you found out he was alive, were you a part of that?

MB: No. It all happened before.

Capone: Then I’ll ask you, Rodriguez. When did you first really get how big a fanbase you had in that part of the world? Was there a single moment?

Rodriguez: When? That’s tough, the chronology of it. I met Malik Bendjelloul in 2008, and he was already well into production of this piece. About the career In South Africa, it was in 1996 that Segerman came to Detroit. He was in New York at the time, and he came to Detroit and showed me the CD and told me all these stories about it. And I didn’t believe him. Because I didn’t believe I was anything there, so I didn’t believe that there were royalties and here it is. It just sounds really crazy, but he showed me the CD, and CDs at the time were kind of newish. They were, I think, started in 1982. I think that’s when they introduced that technology. Up until that, I think there were cassettes and LPs, which is a medium that’s resurfacing.

To find out that, well, I knew it was genuine because he was singing the songs at the concert, and in fact, people were singing the songs all over the planet pretty much. Then I knew that they knew the stuff. It’s a beautiful country, gorgeous people. Afrikaans is my fanbase, and they’ve been down there over 200 years. They have their own language, culture, etc. These people, they were soldiers that were defending South Africa. There are a lot of musicians in my audience, a lot of creative people. We did a show in Jersey in England, 5,000 seats, and then we did one in London, 1,000 seats, and the first 200 people in the door were South Africans. Yeah, and they’re very vocal and very out to have a good time as well.

Capone: So really it sounds like it was that first concert that really drove it home for you, because up until then it had just been people telling you stories.

Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly but then when you see the scope of it. And incidentally, they’re talking about bigger venues for me. We're going to the David Letterman Show. We were in England, we did three shows for the BBC, just interviews. I asked when this was going out, you know, when are you going to put this out. And she told us and everything it was going to be played to millions of people, the interviews. We’re reaching a much bigger audience than even those rock stars of the past have.

Our entry level now at this point is bigger than it could have been when the albums came out, and now with this movi… If Ingmar Bergman is the Godfather of Swedish films, Malik Bendjelloul is the Godson of Swedish films. Now it’s global, see? [Laughs] He’s taking his wares to the market, which even Mr. Bergman, his beginning was probably not so grand. It’s a different world.

Capone: You’re actually going on Letterman?

Rodriguez: On August 13th, that’s been confirmed Is that something or what? I need people to grill me for that because that’s a big show. They’re talking about having a violin section there. They’re going to see if they can do this because they’re trying to create a buzz, and the thing is. So, the question for me is, should I bring my own band, or should I use theirs? I understand that they tape in the afternoon. See, I always thought...

Capone: 5pm, I think.

Rodriguez: Yeah, I thought I’d be up at 2am, and I’m game for that because I’m a musician. We’re up for late hours. So, that’s in the works.

Capone: The part of the film that made me laugh the hardest were the people who were investigating and trying to find out some of your history. Before they realized that you were alive, they were dissecting your lyrics.

Rodriguez: Oh, yeah. I liked that.

Capone: They were trying to find clues. And of course they come up with almost nothing, but when you heard that were you just wishing you dropped more clues in there?

Rodriguez: I’m conscious when I write this stuff of what I’m putting down, but I didn’t know that people paid so much attention. That’s what I mean, they point out things, so it was good.

Capone: I thought I had read somewhere that you were doing a tour of the United States?

Rodriguez: Yeah, they’re setting up different shows. But right now, presently, we’re going with the screenings. Malik is introducing him films to American audiences. I’m told over 84 cities are going to screen it.

Capone: But then will you come back here and play a show?

Rodriguez: Yeah, they’re setting some things up, but I just try to know a couple days ahead instead of trying to know--it’s true. It’s really quite something. All of the sudden, they’re telling you this and telling you this, and I’m ready for it. I’m ready for this.

Capone: Have you stumbled upon anybody on the tour since Sundance that actually remembered hearing him or hearing about him or owning his album?

MB: The strange this is, it happens all the time.

Capone: Do you believe them?

MB: They say, “Oh, this song, it’s on my favorite album. I got it taped when I was 16, and I’ve been listening to it ever since.” It happens much more often that you would think because everyone says no, Rodriguez is not famous in America, but it seems like still there are people.

Capone: Outside of South Africa.

MB: Yeah.

Capone: How did you actually get this movie made in terms of financing?

MB: It was very, very hard, to be honest. Maybe it’s because I was a first-time director, or maybe it’s because Rodriquez is not famous. In the end, I did not get a single cent in salary. The whole production period, four years of work. Now, now since we’ve sold it, I’m starting to get a little bit of money back, but for four years… In the end, I couldn’t afford paying people. Basically, everything was made on my kitchen table, the original music, the animations, and the title sequence. The editing and everything, we couldn’t bring professional people in. It was a very DIY, primitive production.

Capone: You did the animations? Because I think those are great.

MB: The illustrations, yeah. The black and whites were my stuff; I didn’t do animations.

Rodriguez: The cinematographer, Camilla [Skagerström], she’s in the credits, but that’s part of his staff and the only one. There were only two people making this film. That’s pretty minimalistic when you get down to it. It is quite something.

Capone: You bring the film to Sundance, you get into Sundance, which is an achievement in itself, and then to have such a great reception.

Rodriguez: A standing ovation, about six at least.

Capone: And you were there too, right? You went to Sundance.

Rodriguez: Yes. Malik’s was there all ten days. That’s a lot of work there as well. He works this film. As a filmmaker, it’s not just filming; it’s financing, finding people interested in it, traveling with the film, promoting, late hours.

Capone: Could you have imagined a better Sundance experience?

MB: No.

Capone: Because you sold the film there too, correct?

MB: Yeah, the first sale of the festival. Before the premiere, they said, “We want to buy it now! Before the premiere, otherwise, we won’t buy it.” They were threatening us.

Capone: Wow. They wanted to be able to announce it at the premier? Is that what it was?

MB: They just wanted it, and they didn’t want to wait until after the premiere.

Capone: But that couldn’t have not gone any better.

MB: No, it couldn’t!

Rodriguez: No.

Capone: You spoiled yourself.

MB: Yeah.

Rodriguez: First time out.

Capone: There are a lot of names of other musicians that are sort of dropped--other people talking about your music and saying, “He sounds a bit like this person and that person.” Who are actually some of your influences musically?

Rodriguez: Well, the thing is I play guitar, and I’m self-taught on guitar. Anyone with that instrument, I’m kind of, “What are they doing with that guitar?” Chord change-wise, singing-wise, material-wise. So, that’s what I focus on. I like John Fogerty, I like "Fortunate Son," "Born on the Bayou." You can feel that guy.

Capone: The swamp is in his blood.

Rodriguez: There you go, as such. Paul Simon’s "I Am a Rock," Barry McGuire’s "Eve of Destruction," Bob Dylan’s poetry that helps us go through those periods of time. I turn to music, it saves you a little bit, and it gives you the strength to know that somebody else is feeling that waking you up a little bit. Neil Young’s "Ohio" where the National Guardsmen shoot on the campus at an American university at students protesting against the war. When the country’s youth is leaving, going to Canada, burning their draft cards, protesting the idea that if it’s good for General Motors, it’s good for America. We have to remind people that California produces Schwarzenegger, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon.

They’re trying to get the coasts. Florida with that glitch of elections and all that stuff. It’s a political year, and I’m a political musician. Vote for Obama. [laughs] I like the Dixie Chicks. Here are three American girls. They sing, each plays a guitar, and one’s a little political, and all of the sudden they get caught because one is too outspoken. In South Africa, the idea of censorship, well, that just didn’t work for me. If they pretty much don’t want you to hear it, they don’t want you talking about it, and they pretty much don’t want you thinking about it either, and that’s thought government. That’s beyond my idea of, “Hey man, we’ve got the rights.”

Capone: Was it shocking to you, that your record had been physically mutilated by the government of South Africa?

Rodriguez: Doesn’t the FCC appoint the head by the President of the United States? He also chooses a person who’s going to write his history. I’m a political musician.

Capone: I can tell.

Rodriguez: These hit me hard, these kinds of things.8

Capone: Yeah. I’m wondering, what do you take away from an adventure like this in terms of just being a filmmaker and a storyteller?

MB: More than that, it tells you a lot, I think. Anyone who makes any kind of art can learn so much from Rodriguez in the way his life turned. People told him in the early '70s, “You need to change. Then you will have the success you’re dreaming of. But, you need to change your name, you need to change some lyrics here and there, you need to adapt yourself to us.” Rodriguez said, “No, I’m not into this; I’m not adapting myself to you,” and it was the world that needed to adapt itself to Rodriguez. That’s the way to do art, you should just say what you want to say, and then if people get it, they get it, if they don’t, they don’t. And if it takes 40 years, it takes 40 years. If it’s good, it’s always going to find an audience.

Capone: You can never predict these things, how long it’s going to take.

Rodriguez: There’s no blueprint for it for music’s success.

Capone: I think you’ve proven that.

MB: But to keep your integrity level the way he did, just do your stuff.

Rodriguez: Yeah, rock and roll is a living art, music is a living art. If music is a celebration of life, you need those musicians to help put that across. I feel good that I’ve been this fortunate to be able to be around to celebrate that.

Capone: When I watched the film it made me think of all the albums I have in my collection that maybe I listened to once. Maybe I need to go look at those again.

MB: Right.

Capone: And just see if there’s something there I didn’t hear when I was younger

Rodriguez: All that you missed.

MB: Right.

Rodriguez: Like a new intensity you mentioned with the lyric content of Credence. It’s like that. It’s like the philosophical question, is there a noise in the forest when tree falls and no one is around? I have answered that for myself. I think there is because the forest is alive.

Capone: That’s right, and it keeps growing.

Rodriguez: Exactly. Is there a sound in the forest? Yes.

Capone: I love that you don’t dictate the direction the story goes in, you just let it go, and you just see where it takes you.

MB: Right, right.

Capone: You have to just let it unfold, and that’s what this movie shows us.

MB: Thank you.

Capone: If you do come back to Chicago, I will absolutely come and watch you, because I’ve been loving this record they sent.

Rodriguez: I will put the word out, and then maybe our paths will cross again soon.

Capone: I hope so. It was wonderful to meet you, sir.

Rodriguez: I look forward to meeting you on the road, sir.

-- Steve Prokopy
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Readers Talkback
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  • Aug. 9, 2012, 8:20 p.m. CST

    Sugar Man, you're the answer.

    by Monolith_Jones

    This looks really interesting.

  • Aug. 9, 2012, 8:39 p.m. CST

    The Man!!!

    by remark

    Was dragged to see this last weekend I was visiting in NYC. I knew nothing about it and will never forget it. Amazing story!!! I downloaded the album as soon as i got home. I hope to see Rodriguez when he comes to Philly in October.

  • Aug. 9, 2012, 10 p.m. CST

    Maybe change the spoiler in the article's title?

    by Randin Graves

    I saw this at Sundance completely unspoiled and it was one of the most fun moviegoing experiences of my life, capped off by Rodriguez' appearance. It's terrible that all the marketing and press spoil the story. It's the freakin' Sixth Sense of documentaries. If you've read this article, go see the movie anyway, but bring an unspoiled friend to try to at least get some vicarious surprise.

  • Aug. 9, 2012, 10:18 p.m. CST

    watched the trailer/clip on iTunes...

    by ponyboy

    & was completely engrossed in just the 2 minutes that it showed. the producer playing one song & almost breaking up. the lyrics went something like "lost my job two weeks before christmas..." then rodriguez really lost job 2 weeks before xmas. no spoiler, as it was in the clip. promptly downloaded song. I love docs, & this looks/sounds great. thanks capone, yet again, you hit it out of the park! though one TBr did mention yesterday or a couple of days ago, that it would be cool to see some pics of your interview sessions. minor quibble, always dig your work!

  • Aug. 10, 2012, 2:07 a.m. CST

    RE: didger

    by Capone

    You're 100 percent right, and there's almost nothing you can do about it. When the director says they want to bring in people to the film with these interviews, and hopefully those people will bring people and tell them nothing about the movie, I read that as permission to do a little bit of spoiling. But honestly, the film succeeds even knowing that. That being said, I'm going to try and write a spoiler-free review for Friday.

  • Aug. 10, 2012, 2:32 a.m. CST


    by teddy_duchamp

    Thanks for this great interview, just wanted to point out that it was his first album 'Cold Fact' that became the big hit and inspred a generation in South Africa. I saw the film last week and loved it, a real positive and uplifting tale, highly recommend it. Also people... the album Cold Fact is a brilliant piece of work that grows and grows with every listen, especially the track Suga Man. Can't believe he wasnt a star in the 60s

  • Aug. 10, 2012, 8:47 a.m. CST

    My (spoiler-free) review:

    by King_Knut

    Fantastic film...

  • Aug. 10, 2012, 8:58 a.m. CST


    by King_Knut

    Please, change the title of your article. You're spoiling the film in the title.