‘I used to do certain [musician’s] stories and normally you could actually tell stories in like three minutes [or] if they are good in seven minutes – retelling [them] in six minutes if speaking as fast as I could…but for the first time in my life I found a story that I thought deserved to be feature length.’ The story is that of Detroit musician Rodriguez who recorded two albums in 1970 and 1971: ‘Cold Fact’ and ‘Coming from Reality.’ Though hailed by leading music producers, his records never sold in America. But they were discovered in South Africa, and unbeknownst, to Rodriguez, he became bigger than Elvis amongst white liberal South Africans. Presumed as dead due to a rumoured suicide, when it was discovered that he was alive and well and still living in Detroit, he was brought over to South Africa to a rapturous hero's welcome in 1998. Rodriguez has been touring South Africa since then and the film contains footage from these gigs. It is a testament to the greatest attributes of human kind even in a country that once practiced one of the darkest and most systematic assaults on personal freedom.
As there is so little archival footage or photographs of Rodriguez, how did the director get over this challenging aspect of building a narrative?
'That's why we had animation. The idea was to have much more animation actually, but we couldn’t afford it. It’s ridiculously expensive. There was a problem telling the story because Rodriguez was never famous, ever. In Detroit where he was living he didn’t have a digital camera [and] there were only a few very nice photographs that he had.’
Noting that there was a third seat on stage, Graham then introduced Rodriguez. The singer was greeted with a thunderous standing ovation. As the film is in distribution in Europe and America, Graham asked Rodriguez what it is like to experience his music receiving global recognition. The rather shy and nervous-seeming singer said that ‘the energy in the room speaks for that’ and his ‘thank you very much’ to the crowd elicited another round of enthusiastic applause.
‘This is Malik Bendjelloul’s film and the thing is I didn’t have anything to do with the scripting of the interviews. I didn’t choose who he would interview…I don’t think he had a title for the film. I know that he worked out of his kitchen sink to put it together and I know that this is his first time as a director [of a feature film] and it is a remarkable thing that he has done.’
Was he happy with the film? ‘My favourite part is seeing my daughters.’ Rodriguez has three and all are interviewed for the film.
Graham noted that Rodriguez is a very shy and introverted man who used to play with his back to the audience, so how then did he managed to ‘turn up in South Africa to thousands of people and ... take to it like a duck to water?’
‘I had a lot of help getting up there’ going on to say that South Africa is a gorgeous place and when he heard people ‘singing my stuff I knew that it was genuine and that really helped me.’
Where did the whole spark for finding out more came from? The director replied ‘I was actually working, looking for stories. I was travelling around Africa and South America for six months with a camera just scouting for stories. In Cape Town I met Sugar [record store owner featured in the documentary] and he told me this story and I was like ‘Wow, this is the best story I ever heard.’
The next audience member said to Rodriguez that ‘I just want to express my thanks for what you’ve done. I came to Detroit in winter ’91 to remodel houses and I lived both downtown and Jefferson. So I know a little bit of the surroundings. It’s really really amazing to see you here and thanks a lot.’
‘Well you had to go to Detroit so my deepest condolences. Detroit, you know is the only city in America with no view.’
The next question asked was how people could buy Rodriguez’s records so that the money would go to him and his family? The answer was that Rodriguez is now signed to a small label based out of LA and Seattle and with their having linked up with Sony Legacy his albums will be more available. Bendjelloul then stated that the money from sales of his records now does go to Rodriguez. Regarding the royalties owned to Rodriguez from the now defunct record label Sussex he said that ‘we are so busy right now following this film that later on we will possibly solve that [issue]. But I’m from here on instead of [the past].’
Had Rodriguez finished the third record that is mentioned in the documentary.
‘I asked for that to be removed [mention of his third album] from the film. It cheapened the film I thought because it’s not a promo film and I’m going ahead with this saying this, but it was too late [to take it out] apparently…’
Bendjelloul cut in to say that Rodriguez has written hundreds of songs over the years ‘that are just as good as the previous ones and I put that in because we want that [third] record.’ Fobbing Bendjelloul off, the very humble Rodriguez simply stated that ‘Well I’m a musician that’s what I do.’
Another audience member said ‘I’m from South Africa, I was born and raised in Cape Town…I was unbelievably moved by the opening sequence [in the film]…I remember it all, I remember Rodriguez’s music growning up, I remember the stories, I remember the concert in ’98. I wasn’t there but I remember the fact that he was alive as astonishing and the film kind of replicates that kind of astonishment brilliantly.’
To finish, Rodriguez took up his guitar and played a cover of ‘Fever’ followed by his own song ‘Sugar Man.’ Looking around the auditorium while he played, one could see people mouthing the words to his song and completely absorbed in the performance. It was a delightful ending to an evening telling the story of a modern day musical fairytale.