malik-rodriguezI had the pleasure of meeting Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul back in the summer of 2012 when he was promoting his new documentary Searching for Sugar Man. The powerful film told the true story of a singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez who was discovered in the late 1960s by music producers who were convinced he was going to become one of the greatest recording artists of his generation. But when Rodriguez’s debut album, “Cold Fact,” bombed, the singer disappeared into obscurity. That was the whole story for decades — until “Cold Fact” somehow found its way to apartheid-era South Africa where it became a phenomenon, unbeknownst to the artist who was working construction jobs in Detroit.

Rodriguez’s haunting, anti-establishment songs hit a nerve in that country and became known by nearly every man, woman and child. But in those pre-Internet days, no one knew how to find the mysterious singer. There were even rumors that Rodriguez had committed suicide or had blown his brains out on stage during a performance. Bendjelloul’s deeply moving Oscar-winning documentary reveals what happens when the down-to-earth singer was finally located by some enterprising South Africans. Searching for Sugar Man made my Top Ten list for the year and went on to win numerous honors including an Academy Award.

Back in the summer of 2012, I was delighted to attend a press event for the film at L.A.’s House of Blues with both the director and 70-year-old Rodriguez . I sat down with Bendjelloul and found him to be very humble and soft-spoken. He seemed somewhat surprised that his film was getting so much attention and acclaim. I told him that I ran straight from the screening to my computer to purchase the re-released “Cold Fact.” I said I had no memory of ever responding to music I’d never heard before that intensely or that fast.

“You’re absolutely right,” Bendjelloul said, “I had exactly the same feeling when I heard it for the first time, it has this kind of magic quality! I first heard of Rodriguez in 2006 when I was traveling around South Africa looking for stories for Swedish TV. I met a guy named Steven Segerman and he told me the story. I couldn’t believe it! I talked to a lot of people but it took me years to get Rodriguez to sit down for an interview!”

Bendjelloul was thrilled that so many people were discovering Rodriguez because of the film. The singer has been performing steadily since the documentary was released. The director speculated on some of the reasons why Rodriguez’s career didn’t take off when he first recorded his superb album.

“I think his politics hurt him,” Bendjelloul added, “and the fact that his name was Rodriguez. How dare he play anything but Mexican music with that name, right? It was a different time back then. They tried to change his name at one point but he wasn’t interested. He just doesn’t care about fame and money. But he loves singing, he loves performing. Which is why it was so easy for him to go right back into it when he first went to South Africa. I’ve met many artists in my life but never one as pure as Rodriguez. And he’s never shied away from sharing his beliefs.”

Of course sitting with Malik Bendjelloul that day at the House of Blues, I had no idea that the filmmaker suffered from depression. His brother Johar confirmed to the Associated Press this morning that Bendjelloul had committed suicide as a result of that struggle. In addition to the grief being experienced by his family and friends, Bendjelloul’s death at the age of 36 is a great loss to the filmmaking world.

Click here to read my interview with Malik Bendjelloul from 2012.