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Malik Bendjelloul's search for a genius

The Searching For Sugar Man director discusses hunting down mysterious musical hero Rodriguez for his debut documentary

Mysterious singer-songwriter Sixto Rodriguez, discovered in the late 60s in a corner of a Detroit bar called The Sewer, released two seminal albums then disappeared. Amid rumours of self-immolation onstage, what happened next to the “rock’n’roll Lord Lucan” is evocatively told in Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul’s debut documentary Searching For Sugar Man. 

Dazed Digital: Your documentary unfolds like a detective story – how did it all begin?

Malik Bendjelloul: Well, a detective in Cape Town actually told me the story. I fell in love with the story before I even heard Rodriguez’s music.

DD: Why do you think his records flopped? 

Malik Bendjelloul: He performed with his back to the audience – probably not the best way to sell records. Also, he had a Mexican-sounding name in the early 70s, when this music was overwhelmingly Caucasian – Robert Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan, Rodriguez refused to do that. He was challenging the white pop scene. If you were a Mexican youth back then you were allowed to play Mexican music, but his music was challenging the likes of Bob Dylan, The Velvet Underground and The Doors.

DD: Did he continue to write music after being dropped by his label? 

Malik Bendjelloul: He never stopped. He wrote new songs that maybe we’ll never hear. He always believed he was a musician, always walked around the streets of Detroit carrying his guitar. If you’re an artist you’re an artist, that’s the only way I can explain it.

DD: Detroit is so much a part of Rodriguez and his music.

Malik Bendjelloul: Yes. There’s nowhere like Detroit, it’s a modern necropolis, all these art deco masterpieces crumbling away. It’s like an urban prairie, so beautiful in a hard-bitten way – like Rodriguez’s music. 

DD: His lyrics are very socially conscious – did he get involved in politics?

Malik Bendjelloul: He ran for mayor – politics and songwriting have been his life. He has a PhD in philosophy, he’s very much a thinking man. He comes from a tough, poor background, but it didn’t matter – that’s really what this story says. Everyone goes through bullshit in life, it’s what you do with it that counts.

DD: Rodriguez had no idea he was a huge phenomenon in South Africa. How do you explain his popularity there?

Malik Bendjelloul: He’s as big as the Rolling Stones there! No one was as important in terms of political inspiration, and expressing opposition to apartheid. The kids growing up in the apartheid era were so restricted and angry – if they spoke out against it they were thrown in jail. The first white resistance came from the Voëlvry punk movement and for them, it was Rodriguez records that shone a torch and guided them into this music that changed the world. This man living in a small house in Detroit, without a telephone, working construction jobs, completely ignored in America – he had no idea what his music was doing across the other side of the world. I’m happy to say Rodriguez does actually have a telephone now.