“The Story of the Forgotten Genius” is such a well-worn formula for music documentaries that it was already being parodied more than three decades ago in This is Spinal Tap. In Searching for Sugar Man, as Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul begins to tell the story of Rodriguez—the Dylanesque folk rocker who released two apparently brilliant albums in the early 1970s, then disappeared—it appears he’s traveling a familiar road.
But he’s got a major ace up his sleeve—that road takes a sharp left turn when we learn that bootleg recordings catapulted Rodriguez to stratospheric heights of fame in apartheid-era South Africa. (When a record-store owner is asked if Rodriguez was as big as the Rolling Stones, he replies “Oh, much bigger than that.”). In fact, his uncensored depictions of sex and drugs were so thrilling to South African musicians that he became the patron saint of the Afrikaner punk movement, which in turn laid the groundwork for the organized anti-apartheid movement that eventually brought the regime down.
It’s just a shame that Rodriguez never lived to see it—he burned himself to death onstage in the middle of a show. Or overdosed in prison. Or shot himself alone in his apartment. Or… could he still be alive? Bendjelloul’s film manages to create an aura of mystery and suspense around a search that actually unfolded 14 years ago—a “detective documentary” set in the very recent past.
It’s the kind of story that makes the audience wonder how it could be possible that they haven’t heard it before. Bendjelloul had a similar reaction when he first discovered the story. “I was traveling around Africa, South America and North America for six months,” he remembers. “I did this big tour looking for stories. It was supposed to be for TV, six or seven stories. I was reading newspapers, I was talking to people… I was looking for anyone who had a good story. I had basically been sitting reading newspapers for a month. It was the most boring month of my life. It really was.”
But boredom quickly changed to excitement when he read about Rodriguez’s story. He found a detective who had investigated the story and interviewed him. “I just thought, ‘This is the best story I’ve ever heard in my life.’ And it’s truly what happened! I couldn’t believe the South Africans had never made a film about it themselves.”
As with many first-time feature filmmakers, Bendjelloul faced a long haul to raise money for the film, especially without giving up creative control. The process took six long years. “Most of the time the guys who have the money aren’t real filmmakers,” he laments, “but you have to listen to them and it kills you. They all want to tell you how to do it but you have to say, ‘No, I’m the one making this film.’
“With any creative person,” he continues, “you need to maintain your creative dignity and appreciate your self-confidence. You really need to think that what you say in your art is going to be great. And maybe it’s not! Maybe you’re completely wrong! But you have to believe in yourself.”
“There were ways to get more money,” he continues, “but I would have had to compromise. It was never worth it, because when you’re working and you love what you’re doing, that doesn’t equal out in money. I had such a small budget. Everyone is out on Saturday night and I’m in! But I loved it.”
Instead of compromising, he settled on a small budget in order to extend his independence all the way to the editing room, since that’s largely where most docs are constructed. Bendjelloul’s vision blossomed there. “Editing is unique,” he explains. “It’s the only part where you completely create the possibilities. It’s such a magic. If you edit that scene one second later, two seconds later, you have a completely different scene. That song comes in sooner or later, a completely different scene. It’s so strange how small, small things change the effect, and how many of those decisions there are. There are millions of decisions in this film. Small, small, small, small, small. That’s why you really care about each one.”
For Bendjelloul, the music was actually just as important as the images, perhaps even more so. “For the audience, I think the music is going to stay with them,” he says. “If you hear it once and love it, it’s going to stay with you. Music is a higher art, I really think. Film portrays life—but music is your life. It’s really something that is part of your body. Every time you hear it it’s a part of your life.”
Searching for Sugar Man was a runaway hit at Sundance and SXSW, as well as at documentary connoisseur fest True/False, where it received a rapturous standing ovation accompanied by not a few tears, including from Bendjelloul himself. “It’s just so moving to see people standing up and screaming and crying,” he says. “You get the tears yourself, and it’s beautiful. I was very overwhelmed and humbled.”
This month, the good feelings roll out to the rest of the country, with the theatrical debut of the film and today’s release of the soundtrack.