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L.A. Film Festival: A musical mystery in 'Searching for Sugar Man'

June 18, 2012 |  8:00 am

In 1970, a Detroit-based singer-songwriter who went by the one-name moniker Rodriguez released an album titled “Cold Fact.” A collection of frank, politically minded folk songs, the record earned favorable comparisons to the work of Bob Dylan and stellar reviews -- Billboard gave it four stars. Despite the acclaim, it was a commercial failure. A follow-up, “Coming From Reality,” suffered a similar fate. Rodriguez was dropped from his label and faded into obscurity.

Except in South Africa.

Half a world away, “Cold Fact” slowly amassed a cult following, and in the unlikeliest of events, protest music penned by a poor, inner-city Mexican American poet became a cultural touch-point for a young generation of white liberals disillusioned by the repressive policies of South African apartheid. Rodriguez’s fans knew little about him, however -- only that he had committed suicide onstage during a concert performance.

INTERACTIVE: Cheat Sheet -- Los Angeles Film Festival

The documentary “Searching for Sugar Man,” which screens Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live as part of The Times-sponsored Los Angeles Film Festival, follows the efforts of two South African fans -- one, a former jeweler-turned-record store owner, the other a journalist -- to uncover the truth about the mysterious performer who, as people in the film say, was “bigger than the Rolling Stones.”

The stranger-than-fiction tale of how an artist could become a superstar in one country while remaining a complete unknown elsewhere fascinated first-time feature filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, a Stockholm-based television director and producer who stumbled across the story during a six-month research expedition in 2006.

BendjelloulLooking for possible pieces for the Swedish cultural TV series “Kobra,” Bendjelloul’s itinerary took him to 16 countries, including South Africa, where he met Stephen “Sugar” Segerman, one of the men who labored for years to find the truth about the musician.

“I was like, ‘Wow, this is just the best story I ever heard,’ ” Bendjelloul said, speaking by phone from Stockholm. “I was like, ‘This is so good, there must already be stuff,’ but there were no films made.”

Working on a shoestring budget, Bendjelloul and cinematographer Camilla Skagerstrom traveled to locations including Cape Town, Detroit, Los Angeles and Palm Springs to trace Rodriguez’s early days playing dive bars up through his brief recording career and beyond while simultaneously recounting the South Africans’ quest to locate a pop music icon whose work had a profound effect on so many fans.

“People love him in South Africa because you hear this integrity in every single word he sings on the record,” Bendjelloul said. “Those albums are wonderful albums on a real, world-class level.”

Rodriguez’s music plays a prominent role in the film. The title comes from one of the troubadour’s songs, and his heartfelt observations about life, love and the struggles of the working class provide a soundtrack to a search that unfolds with the tension of a thriller. The “detectives,” as Bendjelloul dubs them, piece together clues about the performer’s identity using details from lyrics and conversations with record executives. To say more would spoil the great surprise of the film.

Bendjelloul, who had previously made short documentaries on musicians ranging from Kraftwerk to Kylie Minogue, spent four years working to complete “Searching for Sugar Man,” doing rough animations for the film and editing it on his laptop. He optimistically submitted it to Sundance and was stunned when it was selected to open the 2012 edition of the film festival in Park City, Utah.

“This is a film that I didn’t know if it would even ever enter any festival,” he said. “To go to Sundance was for me the greatest award in the world.”

The movie, set for release through Sony Pictures Classics in New York and Los Angeles on July 27, won the audience award and a special jury prize at Sundance and screened at New York’s Tribeca Film Fest before traveling to L.A. Bendjelloul is absorbing the documentary’s early success, and he says he’s yet to decide what project he’ll tackle next or even whether he’ll continue to work from his home base of Sweden or travel to Hollywood.

He says he’s most pleased that the film will expose more people to the beauty of Rodriguez’s music.

“Who I’m really happy for is the guy who’s going to listen to this record, because it’s really music that might possibly stay with them,” said Bendjelloul, just before heading out to catch a Yoko Ono performance at a Stockholm museum. “In South Africa, he’s considered as good as Dylan, and Dylan has stayed with people for 40 years. Rodriguez could possibly stay with people because his songs are that good. If I had any role to play, that’s the most fun thing is to introduce his music to people.”


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-- Gina McIntyre

Photos: (Top) Rodriguez in the movie "Searching for Sugar Man." Credit: Hal Wilson/Sony Pictures Classics. (Bottom) Director Malik Bendjelloul. Credit: Los Angeles Film Festival

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