Musician Sixto Rodriguez is the focus of the new award winning documentarySearching For Sugarman, which tells of his seemingly failed music career in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s that blossomed in South Africa (as well as Australia which isn’t covered in the film) where, unbeknownst to Rodriguez, he became a huge star. The documentary, by Malik Bendjelloul follows the unlikely story of ‘Sugar’ a Rodriguez fan who followed the legend and attempted to find the real story behind the musician’s rumored onstage suicide only to find him alive and working in Detroit. Meanwhile, Clarence Avant, the record producer who’s label folded, seems to have no idea about profits from the subsequent Rodriguez re-releases. After producing two albums: Cold Fact and Coming from Reality, the singer now has a blossoming music career 40 years later and is on tour across the United States.
What was it like for you receiving the phone call the first time from South Africa (and Australia) and finding out that you are popular there, then shortly after flying out for a concert? That must’ve been intense coming from doing demolition work?
Oh, sheesh, yeah, it was epic! About South Africa and Australia, I consider them virgin territory, they’re beautiful country’s, gorgeous people and they are very outgoing and my fan base in South Africa are Afrikaan. They’ve been down there 200 years and it was pretty amazing. I knew it was genuine because they knew the lyrics to my songs. It was Olympic man! You know what I mean, it was epic, really cool!
Your initial career in music in the 60′s-70′s was short. Aside from playing local bars in Detroit, what were some of your biggest moments? Did you play in any larger theaters?
Well, you know, not anything on this level. Pretty much bars and clubs and lounges in Detroit but I did pop around different places, but nothing as big as this.
Have you continued to write songs throughout your life?
Yes, yes I have but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m just following the film touring since January, 8 months.
You seem to have dealt with everything that’s happened to you very well, but do you have any animosity or regret?
Oh animosity is too strong an emotion to waste on someone you don’t like. No, I think that all will be resolved. It’s a long situation, there’s a lot of things people don’t know about this business and I don’t either so I’m pursuing a legal team. I haven’t talked to Clarence Avant in 30 years. The thing is, Clarence gave me my start, he helped me when I was in dire straits, more than once, so I owe Clarence a lot, but after ‘74 I didn’t know him for the next 30 years so I didn’t know the second part of the story. I think it will all be resolved. But right now we’re just following the film.
Well with all this craziness that has happened in your life, how do you look at it? Is it fate that it worked out this way? How do you feel about it?
Oh jeez, now that I don’t know. I’m gonna tell you I’m a very lucky, fortunate person but I had help getting here. I have to mention, Sony Pictures Classics, I have to mention Sony Legacy, I have to mention Light in the Attic, and my family and friends who absolutely helped so much and the curiosity of Sugar, that little spark. It’s Sugar, he’s the hero in this film and my daughter of course but I’m just saying it made the film happen.
A number of your songs have political and social messages to them and I know you actually ran for Mayor of Detroit at one time but now that you have the opportunity to speak to the world, what would you say about what’s going on? How much have things changed?
Well, I think national issues are the same, jobs, people looking for employment, the economy. In the 70’s I said that, the war in Syria, that’s a current issue, how about the war on the border of America and Mexico? I heard 40,000 had been killed, 50 journalists killed in Mexico and you know they gotta fix it, that’s how I feel.
I had a chance to see you perform twice recently, first at Guild Hall for the Hampton’s Film Festival and then at the Newport folk Festival and I’ve seen a number of celebrities and musicians react to your story and your music. Who have you heard from and what were some of these experiences like?
Yeah, Jackson Browne was in the audience at Newport, in New York Bob Geldoff, Alec Baldwin, and Mike Moore. I’m not name dropping but it’s catching their support. They are jumping into this and showing it at their festivals, so yeah I’m happy with the movie, it’s getting me more calls (laughs).
I know the rapper Nas sampled “Sugar Man” on Stillmaticback in the day which is kind of interesting.
Yeah, it was early in the career, maybe about 8 years ago or something. Oh, about the film, the climax of the movie is ’98 but I want to mention that I met Malik (director of Searching For Sugarman) in ’08 and I was reissued in ’08 as well so I always want to make that distinction.
In your live shows I’ve seen you do a few covers of songs like “Only Have Eyes For You” who are some of your favorite musicians?
Oh geez, you know as I research my mind about the kind of music I like I pretty much listen to everything, obscure singers like Johnny Hayes, certainly Jimmy Reed whose not obscure, but those kind of early singers, you know, I’m a solid 70 (years old), I’ve done the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s and I’m working on the 10’s. That music from those eras pretty much stays with me. There are so many genres of music I like. I used the protest song as a vehicle to describe social issues, so my focus is more like that: bringing up stuff about society, police brutality, those harder issues which don’t go quite too well on middle radio, so maybe I made it hard on myself.
Your music is often compared to Dylan and Donavan. I just wanted to know how you feel about those guys and if you’ve heard from them at all.
Bob Dylan is the Shakespeare of rock and roll, he’s written thousands of songs and I met Donavan at Sundance. I saw him perform and I got a little film clip with him. I think Donavan is more Donavan now than he’s ever been (laughs), all this development, you know Dylan is too. It was these voices that helped us get through those 60’s and 70’s eras so the comparison is sweet, they are sweethearts to me.
Finally, I loved your recent performance on Late Night with David Letterman. It was really fantastic with the horns and the strings, it was amazing, what was that like?
The thing is I [had] got a 25 piece orchestra behind me and so the performance was going to be powerful without me (laughs). I just said I was going to do a rhythm section. I didn’t have anything to do with it, I didn’t have anything to do with Malik’s movie either, I’m in the movie with him, I didn’t tell him who to choose to interview, what to say, where to go you know, they did real well with it and I’m really happy for him now. It’s his first film [and] out of 10,000 entries to Sundance he got the People’s Award and People’s Choice award and World Documentary.
The Iranian born Marjane Satrapi quickly became known as one of the foremost graphic novelists of our time after publication of her groundbreaking, autobiographical novel Persepolis and she went on to team up with French graphic novelist Vincent Paronnaud (aka Winshluss) who is known for his interpretation of the classic Pinocchio to co-direct the Oscar nominated animated adaptation which featured Sean Penn and Gena Rowlands vocal work on the English version. Their follow up, the live-action Chicken With Plums, adapted from another of Satrapi’s graphic novels and starring Mathieu Amalric and Isabella Rossellini opened on August 17.
Marjane Satrapi At the time when your graphic novels came out, it was pretty rare to see a female graphic novelist and coming from Iran and it’s even more rare.
Well I think drawing has been for a long time a thing of distraction, you know, comics are for distraction. People read comic strips in magazines to get distracted but the distractions were for males because the women, they know how to sew and how to make the nice cooking and this and that. They were not supposed to be distracted so much, so if you don’t read something, then why would you make it? You know, I think the question of female/male isn’t a question of genes or anything. A hundred years ago, female, they have six point less IQ then the men, no kidding. Of course, because if you only cook and sew and take care of a baby and if you don’t study and use other part of your brain your IQ cannot go higher. Now, women’s IQs are higher than the men’s because we study more, make more stuff, etc, so it is the same thing, it’s like making comics, being funny, drawing, dedicating your life to your art, all of [these] things were just for men. If you will come to my Iranian side, I absolutely never got an education in “you’re a girl and because you are a girl you have to be pretty,” never, I mean the obsession of my parents would be that I would become an intellectual, that I would study, that I would be economically independent, that I could stand on my boots and fit myself, then, if I marry, ok but I was not supposed to be pretty and try to make the right marriage. The first time I married, I was 21, my mother was devastated. It was really not the best news she had in her life. She told me “if you were accepted in a really good school or if you made something, I would have been happy but you are marrying at 21 and you expect me to be happy for you?” So that was the way it was.
Well, you certainly must have made your parents proud; you certainly accomplished all the things they wanted.
Yeah, they are very proud, certainly, but they don’t talk about it with me. They also pretend that they don’t talk about it with anyone else, which is a lie because a couple of years ago my parents went on a trip to China and they were with a bunch of people and my mother was like “oh when we were taking the bus in this place everyone wants to take a picture with me because I was your mother” and I was like “how did they know you were my mother” and she said “they guessed.” Of course they didn’t guess, of course she said it to them but in front of me she pretends it does not exist because after all, I am her child, you know, famous-not famous, but I am sure they are very proud. They pretend like nothing has happened and that is very cute of them because they don’t add extra weight. It is very bad [if] you start impressing the people who are very close to you because it’s fake. You know, I have the same friends so I just want to have the same kind of relationship with them.
You came from a very tumultuous background and you understand fear and death in a way that other people may not. How do you deal with it?
I know the bad thing with the fear is that it paralyzes your brain. So the moment you are scared, you don’t think. In my country, they try to [create] a situation where everybody is scared of everything. That is the way you control people. Look at America after 9/11. The level is yellow, the level is orange, the level is red, now it is black. It puts people in the situation of fear, so what happens? George Bush he gets elected. That’s what happens when you are full of fear. So, you know, fear is, I would say a very natural, instinctive reaction but we have to learn how to live with it. It’s like when I’m walking very late in the street, I’m like, you know maybe someone like a psycho will come and stab me in the back, I freak out from psychopaths, but at the same time I say if he comes at me with a knife and he stabs me I will suffer a little bit- being like that before that happens means that I have to have a very pragmatic way, of course nobody comes to stab me but it is a very bad feeling. As you have said I have gone through lots of things and when you go through lots of things, you know, the war, that was one thing but when I was living in the streets of Vienna, after that you say to yourself what can happen to me? I have already lived in the street, this is the worst thing that can [happen] to a human being, being homeless, not having anywhere to go, being all alone like that, it really sucks and imagine [as a] 17, 18 years old girl it’s really not fun but once you have lived that, you are quite relaxed in life, worst thing that can happen to me is that I have to go back in the street and you still live.
It’s almost a freedom to hit bottom and know that’s the worst that can happen.
It is. [If] you are extremely over-protected and you don’t go through anything, then the imagination of fear is much bigger than the fear itself. When things happen, you are much less scared. It’s happened to me to be attacked in the street many times because I’m always in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong hour and you fight back and when you have fought 2 or 3 times then you are like, I can fight, no problem, so then you are not scared anymore. Now, of course, I’m still scared of the dark, like when I turn off the light, I don’t like it but I am scared of very childish stuff, like sometimes I go in my house and I’m sure it’s somebody hidden in my closet and then I will take a big knife and I see that there is nothing, but I’m scared of this nonsense stuff like oh, somebody must be under my bed but this is the fear that you have when you are 3 years old.
Well, those childhood fears are powerful ones. I understand totally, it’s funny.
I am scared you know of bullshit stuff. Like I am very scared of cockroaches. If I see one I almost faint but you know a big guy will come with [knife] I am like okay now, I have my bag ready and I am going to punch him in his face.
I work as a high school teacher in a pretty conservative area and your book is part of our curriculum. It’s kind of amazing. Look at how far things have come.
That makes me very happy. Truly, truly.
I was wondering what you would say to those kids, especially with the movie, there is the scene of the Americans that might make them question you?
Well, just consider that a human being in the world is a human being. The privilege of loving your family and being kids and wanting to eat ice cream and going to the movies is not only something you want. Everybody in the whole world, they want to have a peaceful life. We have some psycho people, you have them here too. They are everywhere, you know, they are like ultra-religious or whatever. You have a few of these guys, but unfortunately if they are crazy you hear them much more, than the other ones. From the second that we consider that the “other one” is a human being just like us and that it’s not an abstract notion, you know, “Middle Eastern, Muslim, Axis of Evil” then it will become very difficult to bomb these people. Just consider that the “other one” is just like you wanting to play, wanting to go to the movies, wanting to have, you know, the latest t-shirt that is very much in fashion, listen to the music, falling in love, if they consider that, then you know, this is the only thing that I can say, I don’t have any pretension that is more than that.
That’s terrific. I wanted to ask you, I heard you are working on the new movie The Prophet.
No, I am not doing it. I was supposed to work on it but it was a totally completely different story, then the production decided to make it in another way and in this other way I didn’t see myself beiing part of it.
Oh, that’s too bad. I love Kahul Gibran. What about The Voices?
The Voices is a very cool thing because you know it’s the first time I will be making a film I have not written myself, the story but for me it’s extremely cool and a big intellectual and artistic challenge.
We are coming up on an election here. I don’t know how much you follow American politics, but I was interested in your perspective.
Jesus Christ! First I have to say, for 25 years, you are still going to be the biggest power in the world, until the Chinese take over, still you have for 25 years, the decision of the United States of America effects the whole world so I propose that everybody in the world should be able to vote for the election of America because America makes the decisions for all of us. This is to start with. Then obviously, I cannot be a republican. I cannot be someone who thinks that general health system is not a good idea, someone who is against abortion. I don’t respect that, anyone who is against gays, I cannot respect that, someone who thinks war is the solution to the problem, I cannot respect that, so whatever republicans say I think they all suck, you know, I hate all their ideas so there is not one single idea that I can agree on. The democrats, you know about Barack Obama, I know you can make a lot of criticism but he has inherited a country after 8 years of George Bush and believe me, it’s hard. You know the damage that George Bush has done? You need a century to get over it so 100% Obama, for sure.
I found your collaboration with Marjane really interesting because you have very similar content in your work but your style is actually very different, so how did you marry those two?
What interests me is not people who do it the same way I do, it’s the differences. I’m more intrigued and enthralled by a filmmaker or a writer that brings me a new vision or a different vision and Marjane brings me to a universe that is not at all my universe. It’s very different, it’s more naïve, it’s sort of honest, rooted in her culture.
I understand. One of the things that I think is particularly interesting is the mixture of the animation with the live action in the new film. Did you always plan on having animated sequences in the film?
Not really. We had thought it was going to be completely live action but then when we were looking at a scene in terms of sets, it was going to be very expensive and that’s when we thought, hey maybe we could do this in an animated way. But that’s not a problem, I mean I am used to working under certain constraints so if you hit, you know an issue like that then it’s just a question of finding a solution and then applying yourself to making that solution as perfect as possible.
Yeah, well that’s what being an artist is about. The trouble is the fun part to find a solution. You and Marjane worked together on two films, what did you take away from working with her?
So how did you feel when you began working in animation, because you started out as a graphic novelist without any film background right?
No, I started off with no background as a graphic novelist or filmmaking.
Oh, ok nothing?
I was a bad student.
Did you go to art school?
Wow, you just did it, that’s terrific!
I was kicked out of school when I was very young.
So when you started your first graphic novels, you had no background in it, how did that come about? Did you read others and just start doing them yourself?
Yeah, when I was in France I read an enormous about of comic books and I drew, my entire childhood I drew, so I drew and drew until I was 20 and then I stopped drawing for years because I was doing music and I thought I had nothing to say, no stories to tell. I didn’t think it would be interesting and then, you know, I said okay let me give it a shot and it was a long process, you know you have to learn to work, my life at that time was more like staying out all night until 5, it was a long process.
Do you find that you have more focus in your work now that you have gotten older?
Sure. What I mean about learning how to work is that you do one band and then you say, okay, I did one, I can do two and then okay, I did two, I can do more and then say, oh, I did a book, I can do another and it’s that sort of discipline. You know Pinocchio is a very big book and when I started it I was thinking 200 pages and I thought like that because I’ve done a lot of other things so 200 pages is possible so it’s kind of just saying I’m going to go over there and then you gotta go.
So what are you going to work on next?
I am working on a book on the old and the New Testament.
Oh wow, cool! Did you see R.Crumb’s version of Genesis?
I had an opportunity to talk with actors Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon as well as director Jake Schreier and screenwriter Christopher D. Ford from the upcoming film Robot & Frank about a retired cat burglar in the near future who is given a robot to aid him with his daily life and increasing memory loss.
The robot in the film seems pretty close to what would soon be possible. Where did you get the inspiration for the actual robot and how did you make it? It’s a character that becomes emotionally important. How do you work with a robot in making it an important character?
Jake Schreier: Yeah, it’s not easy. I mean our inspirations were the ones they’re building for old people [which] tend to follow this kind of spaceman motif and we just kind of followed along with that, and the level of reasoning it’s capable of we may not see in the very near future, but I mean I think you will start to see things that look like him and for that purpose. Even right now there are like these little seals
Oh yeah I’ve seen the robotic baby harp seals, I saw them online.
Jake Schreier: They give them to old people just to watch them form an emotional connection and it helps keep them more active and engaged and just kind of go along with that.
This doesn’t really feel like a film from a freshman director. I know you have commercial experience, but what was it like working with luminous actors like Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon?
Jake Schreier: It’s very easy, you just sort of sit back and they do really good acting and then say ‘that was good’. I remember the first two days on set it was Frank and Susan’s scenes, Susan did three days on the movie and those were the first three, and I just like forgot to direct for the first day and a half cause I was just like “wow, that was really good. I guess do that again” and I was like “I should probably do my job at some point and adjust these things” but yeah I don’t think there’s any way we could have gotten it done without [Frank and Susan].
Frank Langella: Well, he had to put a lot of work into convincing me that it was going well because I kept saying “this is a disaster, this is never going to work, nobody will understand this, this, this plot point doesn’t work, I’m lousy in this, my accent’s changing” he had to keep telling me “no you’re good, come on out” that’s what he had to keep doing.
Frank, this movie is really about memory and I know you get really into character. What was it like dealing with the fears of losing your memory, as a person who is of that age when it becomes a possibility?
Frank Langella: Well, I don’t have that fear yet, I haven’t had any trouble with it yet. I was once in an award ceremony where an actress said I wanted to thank my hairdresser and my makeup man for getting me out there and I had already gotten my award but if I had to follow her I would have said I’d like to thank my ego but I don’t have any memory troubles yet- other things are going, I just had cataract surgery so I can see you really clearly but so far I can still remember my address and all the essential things. If it starts, I’ll stop acting, if I don’t have breath and I don’t have energy, I won’t work in the theater anymore [but] you can do very well in films for a long time even if you are decrepit, they can wheel me.
Frank, you wrote the book that everyone’s afraid to write (Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them) and it was fascinating with that kind of honesty but did you get a big backlash from it?
Frank Langella: You know, I must say I was prepared for it, it’s four months practically today, I kept waiting for an angry letter from Mel Brooks, nope, not a word. It’s all been “God I wish I said that,” “I knew him when he was like that,” “you had the courage to say things about people.” I didn’t mean them in a mean way I just said those are my perceptions, so no I haven’t had any backlash.
Susan, I wanted to ask you about marriage. As someone who’s been in a long term relationship, it seems like not getting married is becoming more of a trend. I know that you’ve spoken out and said you didn’t really believe in marriage anymore.
Susan Sarandon: No I believe in marriage for other people, I just never have really liked the idea of institutionalized religion, but I mean I think if it means something, I think it’s great. I think everyone should be able to get married and if you know I think it’s a good party. For me, I just think it’s nice to wake up- now he’s in relationship, (speaking about screenwriter Christopher D Ford), I shouldn’t say this, but he’s engaged so you can ask him, why are you engaged?
Christopher D Ford: Because I want to be married.
Susan Sarandon: Why do you want to be married?
Christopher D Ford: Because I want to be in a family with my girlfriend.
Susan Sarandon: Which means being married. Yeah I think it depends on what it means to you.
Do you think it’s changing, because gay marriage certainly brought up a lot of different issues?
Susan Sarandon: I think more people are getting married more not less. I was married in my 20’s for a brief period of time so as not to get kicked out of school. When I had my first child out of wedlock, I wasn’t married to any of the guys I had children with. That at the time was a major, major thing. Now it’s not such a big deal so I think that has changed. It seems to me more people are interested in getting married younger and I think it’s a really great way to publicly discuss your commitment and it’s a great party. I think the trap of a long term relationship is taking each other for granted and some people when they seal the deal kind of stop trying, they’ve done it, they’ve caught the person, they’ve found the person, they’ve made the contract and then it takes so much work to be in relationship for a long time. It’s just so wonderful to be in one, I’ve always been in committed relationships for long periods of time and if being married makes you commit to trying to improve your skill set and keep that going I think it’s great. Robot & Frank Opens in Theaters August 17, 2012. From: Short & Sweet NYC