A 6-year old girl from a movie inspired by the New Orleans hurricane may have captured most of the hearts at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, but there was still plenty of love left for a 69-year-old American singer-songwriter, largely ignored by his home country, yet loved in South Africa. Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary directed by Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, walked into the festival with a short-film-award-winning buzz around it and left with two awards, a distribution deal and thousands of new fans for its subject, the Detroit-born singer Rodriguez. And the acclaim didn’t stop there.
“This was only meant to be a 7 minute insert for TV when I first started this project” exclaimed Bendjelloul as he picked up the second honour, the Audience Award for World Cinema: Documentary, at the closing night ceremony. But the journalist-turned director knew from the minute he heard longtime fan and music shop owner Stephen “Sugar” Segerman relate the tale – of a reclusive rock star who should have been bigger than Bob Dylan but was believed to have committed suicide in unbelievable fashion after his album failed to fly in the US – was too good to be confined to the small screen. Bendjelloul says he made the film because it was “the best story he’d ever heard” – this coming from someone who found the stories that inspired hit movies The Terminal and Men Who Stare At Goats.
Reaction from the audiences showed they agreed. As one man in the audience put it: “This is what Sundance is all about – helping us discover something we didn’t know we’d lost. South Africa has given Rodriguez back to us.” And the singer himself is grateful that Sugar and music journalist Craig Bartholamew-Strydom didn’t let go of a 16-year-search to find the singer who had left such an indelible mark on liberal white South Africans. “It means so much that they went to all this trouble. I thought my music days were over,” Rodriguez said.
Far from it – Segerman believes the time is finally right for Rodriguez to enjoy this new wave of attention, and to begin touring again. “Rodriguez is in incredibly good shape for a guy who’s going to be 70 this year – unlike other rockstars…Bridge Over Troubled Water was released in the same month as Cold Fact (Rodriguez’ debut album) and it withered in its shadow. He is only just starting now.”
Indeed it is all only just starting now – Rodriguez will this weekend play the Newport Jazz Festival, before touring the US and playing The Late Show with David Letterman. The film has gone on to show at other top festivals around the world and picked up even more awards, as well as attention for Rodriguez. An album of his music from the movie will be released too. It’s about time.