Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

{Searching for Sugar Man opens in Seattle on Friday, 8/24 and is screening at the Landmark Harvard Exit}

I’m in a meeting room at the W and it takes me more than a few minutes to process the fact that I am sitting across from an. actual. legend. A guy who was at one time as big as Elvis and the Stones. A guy who fans say is “better than Bob Dylan”.

A guy who, depending on who you ask, either burned himself to death on stage during his last public appearance, or shot himself in the head. 

But the guy—Rodriguez—is less than 5 feet in front of me, alive and well. And learned in 1998 that virtually all of South Africa thought of him as one of the greatest singer/songwriters ever.

Rodriguez released 2 albums in the 1970s in the U.S. on Sussex Records, both of which flopped miserably, even though everyone making them was sure they were amazing. Whether it was due to poor marketing or just the fact that music listeners in the states didn’t like what they heard, no one knows. And when they flopped, he disappeared from the public eye. 

But unknown to Rodriguez and Sussex, his albums made their way to South Africa in 1976 and became a huge and important part of the Apartheid movement. And record-store owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman was determined to track down the man behind the albums.

When he heard about the story while visiting South Africa, Director Malik Bendjelloul got caught up in the mystery, and decided to make a film about it. Searching for Sugar Man blends interviews with stunning views of South Africa and beautiful drawn sequences animated by Bendejlloul himself. It’s a really compelling portrait of a man searching for his idol, and of a man completely unaware of his musical success.

So while I’m being greeted warmly by this man, as he takes his hands in mine and smiles at me, I’m trying to stay grounded and not get lost in the “WOW” of all of that. And also, I can’t wait to hear what he has to say. Bendjelloul also joined us to talk a little bit about making the film.

TIG: I’m sure you’ve probably heard the same questions all day, every day. So I read all the material and everything, I’m wondering how you felt when you learned that your music had such a huge influence on all those people.

Rodriguez: Oh the actual political thing. Well – how that’d go? Well, it’s indescribable in a sense. To try and think about the music itself, but also meeting the people as well. Who were listeners. I mean crowds are one thing, but I got a chance to meet them individually as well since I’m touring. The soldiers, the musicians, the artists, and you know, the audience.

TIG: It is overwhelming?

R: It is…but it’s – and there we are, and everybody. But it’s not Hollywood. It’s not Broadway. It’s not … it’s live music. And it’s a performance. That’s rock and roll. That’s a living art.

TIG: Have you continued to tour?

R: Oh yes, since ’98. The movie climaxes in ’98, and I’ve been touring since then. But I did do it previously. Toured in '79 and '81, even up to Australia.

TIG: Why do you think there were all these rumors about you disappearing?

R: Why? I don't know. I didn’t really know about that until Sugar came to the United States.

TIG: I read that you [the Director, Malik Bendjelloul] had heard the story and were excited about it, but you were apprehensive about listening to the music because you weren’t sure how you like it. If it would live up to the myth.

Malik: Yes, because they had talked about how it was as good as [Bob] Dylan! And I thought, well that’s ridiculous. Comparing him to the greatest artist that ever was. So I thought there are fans for everything – and then I listened to the record and realized they were RIGHT. The comparison is adequate, I think. I mean it is one of my favorite albums, and I think it would be one of my favorite albums even if I wasn’t in any way involved in the film. It’s just a great, great, great album. I mean, both albums. So great.

TIG: I also read that you used your iPhone for parts of the movie…

M: Yeah! Because we ran out of money. And Super 8 is expensive. I mean, it’s not very expensive, but it’s enough that I couldn’t afford it. So – I used the Super 8 app on the iPhone.

R: Malik is a self-made Director. It took him 4 years to put this thing together. I mean, he did the research, the journalism, the editing, the animation. And he asked the hard journalist questions, and the research! He did that too.

TIG: So were there other people who had approached you about making a documentary?

R: At one point, yeah. We received a few offers.

TIG: What made you choose Malik?

R: I had a personal, private life too. Like everyone, you know. And he was respectful of that. He came over to the Detroit in the winter and the summer and the heat of July, and the cold of February. He was filming in the snow … these crazy Swedes, you know? And then they showed his film and he won an award. Out of 10,000 entries, his film was picked for Sundance. The awards are ALL his doing. He picked who he was going to interview, and did all the research.

TIG: Well I think it’s an amazing documentary. It’s beautifully put together, visually pleasing, but also very respectful of Rodriguez’s life.

R: Yeah, I mean, I’m only really in the film for about 8 minutes. He’s amazing. He creates a suspense in the film. I thought, where’s he taking me in this story?

TIG: Yeah, even though I knew you were still alive. I was still asking myself what was going to happen in the course of it.

R: It’s like, we all know what’s going to happen to the Titanic, but it’s still a good story. [laughing]

TIG: And then it led to a lot more interest in your music in the states. Light in the Attic Records re-released your albums in Seattle…

R: Exactly. A small label. And the medium of vinyl coming back. And of course the Internet, the technology, that makes everything, the research easier. It’s your world. The young bloods. It’s amazing that it’s all there.

TIG: It is completely amazing to think that Internet being there is the reason this all happened. That people in America might not ever know about your music if Sugar hadn’t put together that web site and asked for information about you.

M: If it was printed, it never would have made it that far.

R: Yeah, Sugar is the hero in this film. And he’s such a natural in the film. It’s great. I also want to mention: Brian Currin, Craig Bartholomew, and Sugar – Stephen “Sugar” Segerman. Because those are the three strangers who decided to do this. My daughters in the film are a highlight for me, also. I’ve seen it over 30 times, and I see something new every time.

And he weaved the music into it so well. I didn’t have any say in that, and he did a wonderful job. Because it was produced so well by Steve Rowland, the quality of the music, too has really lasted all of these years.

TIG: Are you writing new music now? And do you think that you’ll release another album?

R: Yes, I write. I’m a musician, guitar player. I describe myself as a “musical politco”—and so I do chords and changes and write down an idea for a song and a lyric. I always write. I think that’s how we do as musicians. What I’m doing right now is just going to the screenings of the movie, doing gigs on the side.

At this point, Rodriguez motions both Malik and over to the windows in the W to look at the fantastic view, pointing out the mountains and the water.

R: Look at this. No, seriously, come over here and look at this view! This is really something. Top of the world. This is beautiful.

And then I knew it was time to leave … but not without a few more friendly embraces from a legend who definitely lives up to his legacy. I can't wait to actually see him on stage. 

You can see Rodriguez play live at Light in the Attic’s Ten Year Anniversary Show on Friday, October 12 at The Showbox at the Market, with Michael Chapman and Donnie & Joe Emerson.