Searching for Sugraman: Making of Oscar Winner

“Searching for Sugarman” received the 2012 Best Documentary Feature Oscar.

It was Rodriguez’s compelling and amazing story that appealed to filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul – even before he’d heard a note of Rodriguez’s music.

“In 2006, after five years making TV documentaries in Sweden, I spent six months travelling around Africa and South America looking for good stories.

In Cape Town I met Stephen ‘Sugar’ Segerman, who told me about Rodriguez and his involvement in Rodriguez’s rediscovery. I visited 16 countries in that trip; in each country I searched after good stories by reading newspapers and books and asking fellow travelers. This was by far the best. I was completely speechless – I hadn’t heard a better story in my life. I had never heard Rodriguez’s music when Stephen Segerman first told me about him. I fell so totally in love with his story that I was almost afraid to listen to his work – I thought the chances were very slim that the music would be as good as the story; that I’d be disappointed and lose momentum. I started to listen to it when I came back to Europe, and I couldn’t believe my ears – literally. I thought my feelings for the story might have influenced my judgment, and I needed to play it to other people to see if they agreed. Their reactions convinced me – these really were songs on a level equal to the best work of Bob Dylan, even the Beatles,” Bendjelloul says.

Rodriguez’s record label, Light in the Attic, describes his debut album, Cold Fact, as “… one of the lost classics of the 60s, a psychedelic masterpiece drenched in color and inspired by life, love, poverty and rebellion.” Unbeknownst to him, those themes, reflections of his life in Detroit, also spoke powerfully to a generation a continent away in South Africa, during the reviled Apartheid era. The iron rule of Apartheid, essentially institutionalized racism, became the law of the land in South Africa in 1948. In 1950, the Population Registration Act required all South Africans to be classified as white, black (African) or colored (mixed descent). Categorization depended on appearance, social acceptance and lineage – in other words, it was highly subjective and the white Afrikaans minority made the rules. Their laws became increasingly more discriminative and punitive towards the black majority. By the time Rodriguez’s music was accidentally smuggled in, South Africa was a police state.

The revolutionary anthems of the 1960s had not breached the country – until Rodriguez’s tunes, laced with the poetry of defiance and counterculture, found their way into the hands, ears and minds of young people. In a strange way, the South African youth was prepared to embrace Rodriguez in a way that even his countrymen were not.

“Apartheid was something that was constantly in the news when I was a young, but it seems like ever since Mandela gained power there hasn’t been too much talk about that era. It’s strange that for almost fifty years – all the way into the mid-nineties – there was a country in the world that was a surviving ideological sibling to Hitler’s Third Reich. Mandela implemented a policy of reconciliation, which I think is a very wise philosophy, but I think we still need to know and learn about these times more than we do. The Apartheid regime was very racist, but the liberal whites were probably more anti-racist than liberal whites in America at that same time. For the South African liberals it was absolutely no problem that a singer had a Hispanic name and Hispanic looks. In America in that era, if your name was Rodriguez you were supposed to play Mariachi music.

Rodriguez was a serious challenge to the white rock scene – the Lou Reeds and the Bob Dylans of this world – which was still very much an exclusive members club in Europe and America at this time,” says Bendjelloul.

Rodriguez and his music went on to achieve cult-like success in South Africa, while his musical career in the United States fizzled. In retrospect, however, Rodriguez understands why his music, influenced by his life in Detroit, where he was dubbed an “inner city poet,” resonated with South Africans.

“I describe myself as ‘musico-politco.’ I was born and bred in Detroit, four blocks from the city center. Back then, I was influenced by the urban sounds that were going on around me all the time. Music is art and art is a cultural force. As far as my work from Detroit comparing to the South African Apartheid, the similarities echo. The placards of the 1970s in the United States read things like: ‘We Want Jobs’ and ‘Stop the War’ – I was looking at the music from a working class perspective that was relevant, as it turns out, to the kids in South Africa,” Rodriguez notes.
He adds that his brand of musical activism is not a mere relic and that current times are not so dissimilar from the upheavals in the 1960s and 1970s.
“Today a fruit vendor in Tunisia is bringing down a dictator. In Syria, the government is caught shooting civilians not unlike at Kent State in Ohio. Picasso’s Guernica could be displayed in reference to Darfur or the My Lai Massacre. The issue is wars being conducted against civilian populations as opposed to military forces in combat. Political injustice and social activism continue in the world,” he points out.
So while in hindsight, it makes sense to Rodriguez that the kind of music he made – and continues to explore – reverberated across the world, it certainly amazed him initially to find out how beloved he was in a country he had never seen. In that vein, it surprised him to find out that his story so captivated Bendjelloul that the filmmaker had decided to document it. Like everything else connected with Rodriguez, his life and career are evolving astonishments.

“The climax in the film takes place in 1998, but for me it is still going. I didn’t meet Malik until 2008 and the film was already in progress. I have been touring since that time and the story continues for me,” Rodriguez says.8