Malik Bendjelloul spent four years "Searching for Sugar Man" and that quest to find the reclusive singer/songwriter Rodriguez has brought him to the Oscars.
His film picked up the Producers Guild prize as Best Documentary and just won him Best Documentary Director at the DGA Awards. It also took top honors with the Critics' Choice Awards, International Documentary Assn. and the National Board of Review. In the coming weeks, he contends at both the WGA and ACE Eddie awards as well.
Bendjelloul first conceived of it as a short piece for television, admitting: “I thought it would take six months to shoot. I didn’t think it would be anything more than a short subject. Then the more I told people this incredible story and saw their reactions, the more I began to think of it as a feature. So instead of six months, it took four years.”
The film follows two South African fans, Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, as they hope to disprove the rumor of the death of their musical idol. "He is to South Africa what the Beatles are to America. The mystery wasn’t why he was so big in South Africa, but why he wasn’t so big everywhere else.” Turns out Rodriguez has spent decades living in relative obscurity after his albums failed to sell in the United States.
“I don’t think American artists really understood him at the time,” explains Bendjelloul. “He was a Mexican, and yet he wasn’t playing Mariachi music. That was radical for the time. He was challenging American rock artists like Jimi Hendrix and The Doors.”
The biggest challenge for Bendjelloul was getting Rodriguez involved. “He never agreed to do it really. He said, ‘You can come here, but I’m not going to be on camera.’ It wasn’t until the third time I went there, after he had gotten to know me, that he agreed to it, but only for two minutes at a time. He really didn’t like to be on camera.”
As the filmmaker reveals, “The man doesn’t know that he’s a superstar around the world. He’s this very unusual man. He wasn’t bitter; he didn’t feel he was cheated out of anything because he didn’t need anything. He came to this conclusion that if you don’t consume you’re free. And yet he’s one of the best selling artists in the world."
For Bendjelloul, “Part of the impact of his music had to do with how South Africa was in those days. It was the height of apartheid, and people couldn’t listen to anything that had any kind of subversive nature to it. Yet somehow the albums leaked through to the country, and it seemed like the only person saying anything about political revolution at the time was Rodriguez. For those people, it was the first time they heard something like that.”