Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of the search for musician Sixto Rodriguez. The Detroit-based folk singer released a couple of albums in the early seventies, but those records flopped in the United States.
Unbeknownst to Rodriquez, his albums made their way to South Africa and electrified liberal young Afrikaners who came to consider him a superstar.
"He was like the voice of freedom in a time in South Africa where ... people didn't have freedom. It was this censored, horrible apartheid regime," director Malik Bendjelloul tells NPR's Neal Conan.
"He actually ... without even knowing what he was aiming, changed a society."
Bendjelloul explains how his music made its way to South Africa and the search for Rodriguez decades later.
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Every year, in the run up to the Oscars, we talk with the people behind the films nominated for best documentary feature, and we begin this year with "Searching for Sugar Man" which tells the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a folk rocker from Detroit who released a couple of albums back in the early '70s
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ESTABLISHMENT BLUES")
CONAN: Rodriguez's records flopped here in the United States but unbeknownst to him, his albums made their way to South Africa and electrified liberal young Afrikaners who came to consider Rodriguez as a superstar and a man of mystery.
STEVEN SEDERMAN: The thing was, we didn't know who this guy was. All our other rock stars, we have all the information we needed. But this guy? There was nothing. Then we found out that he had committed suicide. He set himself alight on stage and burned to death in front of the audience. It was the most incredible thing. It wasn't just a suicide, it was probably the most grotesque suicide in rock history.
CONAN: What started as a search for the truth about Rodriguez's death, ended unexpectedly. The man was alive and well, and working construction jobs in Detroit. Joining us now from NPR West is the director, producer and editor of the film, Malik Bendjelloul. And congratulations on the nomination. Nice of you to be with us today.
MALIK BENDJELLOUL: Thank you, sir. Thank you. Nice to be here.
CONAN: And I have to say, the rumor about his death reminds us of the time long before Google when all anybody knew what was - was what was on the album cover and what was on the record label.
BENDJELLOUL: That's right. That's right. I mean, it couldn't happen now, what happened to Rodriguez. It's going to be once in a lifetime thing, I guess.
CONAN: And the story - your story begins with his celebrity in South Africa and why that - well, we've just heard a little bit of - (unintelligible) Bob Dylan, why he became such a revered figure among liberal, white Afrikaners.
BENDJELLOUL: Yeah. I mean, he was like the voice of freedom in a time in South Africa where freedom was - people didn't have freedom. It was this censored, horrible apartheid regime. This was literally a Nazi country all the way up to the mid-'90s, which is a disgrace for this world. And this, you know, white college kids, liberals who thought that their country was most crazy place in the world, but they didn't have anyone inspiring them to say that you can do something yourselves. And Rodriguez was the first one who is singing songs and all have...
CONAN: All of the Afrikaner rockers who came after, said this was the guy who inspired us.
BENDJELLOUL: That's right. That's right. He actually - removed control without even knowing what he was aiming, changed a society.
CONAN: It's remarkable. Your interviewee said every home in Johannesburg or Cape Town would have three records. They would have "Abbey Road" by The Beatles, they would have "Bridge over Troubled Water" by Simon and Garfunkel, and they would have "Cold Fact" by Rodriguez.
BENDJELLOUL: Yeah. And I didn't believe this because this was fans who told me these stories. I went out in the streets of Johannesburg and Cape Town and asked random people, have you ever heard about this guy Rodriguez, and they were like, what do you mean? You haven't heard of his album "Cold Fact?" You're asking me about - this is like asking me if I know The Beatles. Of course, I know, Rodriguez. That is who he is in South Africa, today still.
CONAN: And all of this, completely unbeknownst to him. He was hit quite a music business and was working construction all those years.
BENDJELLOUL: Yes. Yes. That happened. His albums failed completely in America. He made another attempt, same result. He understood, I don't have any talent. I need to find something else to do with my life. And he started to work in construction, like really hard, manual labor. He was living in a house he bought for $50 in 1970. And that was his situation for 25 years.
CONAN: And not - you said he realized - well, clearly, he did have talent. It just, you know, like a lot of people, for one reason or another, his albums didn't take off.
BENDJELLOUL: That's right. I mean, the producers who made his albums, they were, at the same time, working with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder and The Supremes. And they say that all of the albums we ever made, Rodriguez was the one that we had the strongest belief in. It was a masterpiece. And they were so surprised when this album, that was the best album he ever did, didn't do anything and sold 50 copies in America. And, you know, then you get dropped. You don't get to do much more albums if you don't sell anything.
CONAN: If you don't sell anything at all. It's interesting, you finally catch up with Rodriguez, the man himself - and we're going to play an excerpt of your film where you interview him. It turns out he's a man of few words.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN")
CONAN: He seems like, truly, a humble man.
BENDJELLOUL: He - yes, he is. And he really, really is. He - one of the reasons why he didn't get any fame was that he, you know, he performed with his back to the audience in the early '70s. The few times he had to do the showcase performances to studio executives of those record companies, he performed with his back to the audience. And they were like, who is this guy? I mean, we're not going to promote someone who doesn't want to be a star himself.
And when I interviewed him 40 years later, he was actually the same. He actually started to turn around from the camera, facing the wall. He is the most private person that I ever met.
CONAN: Yet when he gets back on stage, he goes back to South Africa, he's rediscovered and has sold-out concerts. You've got fantastic footage of a concert - I guess the first one - in which the people just scream for 10 minutes before they will allow him to even sing. And it is an amazing moment when he seems to go to that stage and act as if he's done that his whole life. He's totally natural.
BENDJELLOUL: Right. So 28 years after he recorded his album, he gets a phone call from a fan in South Africa, telling him that you are bigger than The Rolling Stones. And he says, you got - sorry, you got the wrong guy. I'm Rodriguez the construction worker. I don't know who you're talking about. And then they said: Did you make an album called "Cold Fact"? Yeah, I did, 20 years - 28 years ago. In South Africa, that album is more famous than "Abbey Road." And he doesn't believe them. They convinced him. You have to come to South Africa. You will not be disappointed.
And he is convinced. He goes there, and he doesn't know what to expect. And the flight opens its doors, it's, you know, on the tarmac, there's a red carpet, security guards, paparazzi, limousines. He cannot walk around the limousine. He thinks it's for some president or something. So the security guards comes and they grab him, and they pull him inside the car. On the highway, he looks out at the window, every lamp post in the whole city, big posters: Rodriguez, Rodriguez, Rodriguez Live, Rodriguez Live.
He's - you know, he enters that stage. He can't sing, as you say, for 10 minutes because, for them, it's like seeing Elvis Presley coming back from the dead. He's a resurrected man. And then he starts to sing. And he doesn't remember the lyrics because he hasn't sang these songs for 30 years. But it doesn't matter, because 5,000 people know every single word. They sing the songs for him. And he just stands there. You know, it's a religious - you know, for everyone there, it was a religious experience. It was something unbelievable.
CONAN: And so this has an amazing ending. He's gone back and toured several times in South Africa. And there's a moment - a bit of text at the end of your film that says he gives the money that he earns from those concerts - most of it, anyway - away to friends and family.
BENDJELLOUL: He's the most different man I've ever met. He doesn't consume. He never consumed. He never had anything. So he never started to consume. And, of course, you do a lot of sacrifices. He can't go on nice holidays to Mexico and buy some nice cars, but you get something in return: real freedom. You know, everyone says, I have to work so I can buy my freedom. But the truth is, freedom is free. We all have to do stuff, you and I. We have to work and earn money because we have a flat to, you know, we have a lifestyle that we need to support.
Rodriguez doesn't have that lifestyle. He doesn't need anything. And still, he doesn't do anything that he doesn't like. Yes is no(ph). Some people say, you have to do this. It's going to be really good for your career. And he says, no, but I actually don't need it. But you need the money. No, I don't need your money - which is very, very inspiring in this consumerist society we're living in.
CONAN: You also speak to some of his colleagues, his fellow construction workers. Here's one named Rick Emmerson, talking about the man who, to his surprise - well, to everybody's surprise - turns out to be a superstar in another country.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN")
CONAN: There's an interesting strain of construction worker in Detroit.
BENDJELLOUL: Right. This is very strange, when you walk out the streets of Detroit and you ask random people, and they were all poets. I mean, they were working as construction workers, but they had this kind of poetic nerve about them, this vein.
CONAN: It's interesting. So he continues to work his construction job, basically, to live hand-to-mouth. Clearly, his daughters, three of them, still love him very much. He's an accomplished poet, an accomplished singer and accomplished human being.
BENDJELLOUL: Very much so. I mean, they didn't have much in this family, but still, his daughters are fantastic, inspirational people. And one of the reasons that were - you know, you took them to these places that are free - you can go to. There were - kindergarten, was the museums and the libraries and the exhibition halls. So they were - you know, you can be a rich person without - you know, success is not necessarily to be the richest guy with the biggest villa in Beverly Hills. There are other ways. There are different ways.
CONAN: We're talking with Malik Bendjelloul, the director, producer and editor of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Searching for Sugar Man," the first in our series on this year's Oscar-nominated best feature documentaries. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And I have to ask you: That concert, his first return to South Africa was in 1998. Why has it taken it so long to make this movie?
BENDJELLOUL: Yeah. I was surprised that no one did it before. I started in 2006, and I write for four years, almost every day. So for me, it took quite a while. But even before that, it took quite a while. I mean, strange that not South African documentary filmmaker would have done this story before.
CONAN: And it is fascinating - particularly the early part of the film - for what it tells us about how isolated a place South Africa was. There's an extraordinary moment where they - you show one of Rodriguez's records, and cuts have been censored by the broadcasters. Of course, there is only state broadcasting in those days, in South Africa. It's been censored by scratching - literally, physically scratching - that particular cut on the record so it could not be played on the radio.
BENDJELLOUL: Right, right. And the strange thing was that you could buy the album, because you couldn't hear it on the radio. But somehow - and people think that this was a mistake from the censor board, that you could actually buy them in shops. So he was - I mean, really big. I mean, he sold hundreds and thousands of albums and had this kind of subversive message.
No one else did. I mean, we had heard other artists in America and Europe that were singing, you know, anti-establishment lyrics. But in South Africa, there was only one guy. It was this guy, Rodriguez. So his importance for that society is actual quite real and big.
CONAN: And as we mentioned, his audience was the liberal white crowd. Was he popular with any of the black activists in South Africa?
BENDJELLOUL: I don't think he was, because at the concert, for example, you only see white people. And I thought this is, yeah, of course, because there was still apartheid, and it was really, really divided. The white society was very, very different from the black society. But then we had a screening in South Africa, and this guy stood up, and said, no, no, this is not true. I was a member of the ANC. And even Steve Biko, who was one of the iconic figures in the ANC, he was...
CONAN: A martyr, yes. Yeah.
BENDJELLOUL: Yeah. He was a Rodriguez fan, apparently. So I guess it wasn't only white, but was mostly white.
CONAN: And as you mentioned, he saw hundreds of thousands of records in South Africa, unbeknownst to him, but somebody was cashing checks.
BENDJELLOUL: Yeah. That was that was a thing. I mean, why - how do you know that you're famous? Well, one way is that you get royalty checks. If you sell albums, you know about it. But Rodriguez didn't, and that is a mystery that still has to be solved. Where is those 20 - 35 years of royalties? Where are those money? We don't know. I don't know.
CONAN: You tried to track it through the record's producers and the man who owned the record company that produced them originally, but nobody seems to know.
BENDJELLOUL: No one seems to know. Everyone says that, it wasn't me, they will say.
CONAN: Somebody was getting rich, though. In the meantime, our steps being taken to ensure that any subsequent royalties will go to Sixto Rodriguez himself?
BENDJELLOUL: Yes. Now it's done. I mean, there's a soundtrack for the film, and all the royalties goes to Rodriguez. And also, if you buy the original albums, Rodriguez gets his share, in a nice and good - the right way. Now it's all that has been taken care of.
CONAN: And are the original albums available?
BENDJELLOUL: They are, yeah. "Cold Fact" and "Coming from Reality." You can get them on iTunes or, you know, everywhere.
CONAN: And as you've gone through those screenings in South Africa and elsewhere, what's been the reaction?
BENDJELLOUL: It's been - I mean, there's been - I'm so overwhelmed. I still am. I mean, at this - you know, (unintelligible) that the first screening in Sundance, that one screening had six standing ovations in a row. People were crying and people are screaming. It was almost like that concert in South Africa.
BENDJELLOUL: It's beautiful. It's been a beautiful, beautiful experience.
CONAN: And what difference does it make to the film that it's been nominated for an Academy Award?
BENDJELLOUL: It's, you know, it's the only award in the world that everyone knows of. Just a few blocks where I live in Sweden is the Noble Prize. That's where it's been, in Stockholm. That's very - you know, that's the other prize that everyone knows about. But this is - come on. This is the Oscars. It's incredible. It's surreal.
CONAN: And so you get to go to the ceremony. You're going to be sitting there nervously on Oscar night?
BENDJELLOUL: Yes, I will.
BENDJELLOUL: I just (unintelligible) tux this morning.
CONAN: Well, we wish you the best of luck in the competition, and it's a wonderful film. Thank you very much for being with us today.
BENDJELLOUL: Thank you very much, sir. Thank you.
CONAN: That's Malik Bendjelloul, director, producer and editor of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Searching for Sugar Man." He joined us from our studios at NPR West. For clips from the film, you can go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Tomorrow, we'll talk with the directors of another film nominated in the category, "5 Broken Cameras," which documents the struggles between Palestinian farmers and Israeli settlers in the West Bank. In the meantime, we'll listen to a little Sixto Rodriguez. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.