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Director Bendjelloul Searched For Mysterious 'Sugar Man'


This week, Malik Bendejelloul, who won the 2013 Oscar for his film "Searching for Sugar Man," was found dead in Stockholm. The cause of death is unknown, though his brother told the Guardian newspaper that Malik Bendejelloul took his own life after a struggle with depression.

"Searching for Sugar Man" was a documentary about Sixto Rodriguez, a folk rock singer who seemed poised to break through the charts in the early 1970s but never quite did. He stayed in Detroit. He rehabbed houses, hard physical work. He had a family. And all the while, this man who'd given up hope of musical stardom was becoming a household name in South Africa.


SIXTO RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Sugar man, won't you hurry 'cause I'm tired of these scenes. For a blue coin, won't you bring back.

SIMON: That's the music of Sixto Rodriguez, a song called "Sugar Man" from his 1970 debut album "Cold Fact." In 2012, we spoke with Malik Bendejelloul about his hunt to find Rodriguez which became the story of his film.

He'd first heard about an American singer named Rodriguez on a trip to Cape Town, where people told him that his music had become a kind of anthem for young South Africans who wanted change during the apartheid era when that country was cut off from the rest of the world, which may explain why so many of his fans in South Africa were all able to believe that Rodriguez was dead.


MALIK BENDEJELLOUL: And no one knows exactly how the album came, but when it came, it just spread. And he became as famous and as dead as Jimi Hendrix. Everyone knew his songs. Everyone knew his albums. And everyone knew that Rodriguez was completely dead. There is one story that he shot himself dead on the stage. Then there's another story that he OD'd and that's how he died. And after 30 years, a detective - or actually, two detectives in South Africa, like, music generalists - who said there are different stories.

Which story is the true one? And after years of search, they found the producer of the album. They call him and they are like full of questions. They ask, how was the album made? And the most important thing, how did he die? And he says, no, I saw Rodriguez this morning. He's living down the street. And they called Rodriguez and they tell him, you're bigger than Elvis.

And he, you know, hangs up the phone. He thinks it's a crank call, it's a practical joke. So they call them again and say, listen, listen, this is true. Did you make an album called "Cold Fact"? Yeah, yeah, that's my album. In South Africa, it's more famous than "Abbey Road."


RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) I wonder about the love you can't find, and I wonder about the loneliness that's mine. I wonder how much going have you got, and I wonder about your friends that are not. I wonder. I wonder.

SIMON: Malik Bendejelloul followed the quest of two South African filmmakers who found Sixto Rodriguez alive and happy in Detroit but completely unaware of his stardom in a country on the other side of the world. It wasn't until the apartheid regime ended that his fans discovered that the man whose music had inspired them was still alive. The story captured Malik Bendejelloul's imagination.


SIMON: Mr. Bendejelloul, why do you think it was that Rodriguez became so important to the people of South Africa?

BENDEJELLOUL: In those years in South Africa, it was the apartheid. For decades, they had this almost Nazi regime in a modern state, which was outrageous. And for years, it was this situation where you couldn't express any criticism. If you did, you could be thrown into jail.


RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) The mayor hides the crimes rates. Councilwoman hesitates. The public gets irate. But forgets the vote date. Weatherman complaining, predicting sun, it's raining. Everyone's protesting. Boyfriend keeps suggesting. You're not like all of the rest.


BENDEJELLOUL: Rodriguez was the first artist that actually had political content that was antiestablishment that got heard.


RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Smoking causes cancer. This system's going to fall soon to an angry young tune. And that's a concrete cold fact.


BENDEJELLOUL: The first white anti-apartheid movement - the riot from a few rock bands. And they said those lines, system is going to fall soon to an angry young tune, were the inspiration. I mean, they kind of thought, maybe we are going to make those tunes. And that's what they did.


RODRIGUEZ: (Singing) Sons and monies drafted. Living by a timepiece, new war in the far east. Can you pass the Rorschach test? It's a hassle, it's an educated guess. Well, frankly, I couldn't care less.

SIMON: The success of his film helped reignite Rodriguez's career. He toured South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand to clamoring crowds. He started touring the U.S. again for the first time since the 1970s. And on Wednesday at a performance in Chicago, Rodriguez said that Malik Bendejelloul will be sorely missed. Malik Bendejelloul ran out of money before he finished making "Searching for Sugar Man," so he shot the rest of it on his smartphone.

Rodriguez didn't go to the Oscars in 2013. He said he wanted the filmmakers to receive all the attention. Malik Bendejelloul died Tuesday in Stockholm. He was 36 years old. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.