Searching for Sugar Man is a brilliant testament to the briefly glittering talents of its director and star
In 2006, an aspiring young documentary maker called Malik Bendjelloul left his job at Swedish state TV and went to Africa in search of material for his first feature. He eventually found himself in Cape Town, where a record store owner told him the story of Sixto Rodriguez, a brilliant Mexican-American singer-songwriter whose two albums, released in the early 1970s, had unexpectedly bombed in the US — but, by some magic, later found an audience in apartheid South Africa, where they sold hundreds of thousands of copies. As a consequence, Rodriguez became more popular than Elvis in the country, and inspired a generation of anti-establishment songwriters.
For years, the store owner explained, listeners in South Africa had presumed that Rodriguez was dead: apartheid censorship laws meant that information about him was scant, and rumours circulated that he’d committed suicide on stage somewhere in America. But then, in the late 1990s, a resourceful South African music journalist called Craig Bartholomew-Strydom started digging — and made an astonishing discovery.
It was hardly surprising that Bendjelloul grabbed this story with both hands and set to work turning it into a documentary, Searching for Sugar Man, named after his most famous song and released in 2012. What was surprising, at least to those who didn’t know him, was that this offbeat debut feature – written, directed, edited and co-produced by Bendjelloul – turned out to be a film of such elegance, poignancy and directorial sure-footedness. It was a hit with audiences and won dozens of awards, including the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2013, and seemed to promise Bendjelloul the kind of long, glittering career that had been denied to his subject.
Sadly, this was not to be the case: earlier this month, Bendjelloul committed suicide back at home in Sweden. He was thirty-six, and working on a project based on the conservationist Lawrence Anthony’s book The Elephant Whisperer.