In the early ’70s, a Detroit singer-songwriter named Sixto Rodriguez released two albums that didn’t sell much, and he promptly faded into extreme obscurity. But those two albums, for whatever reason, went on to become tremendous cult successes in South Africa, and decades later, South African fans set out to find Rodriguez and bring him the spotlight that had never quite settled on him. Searching For Sugar Man, the documentary about the search for Rodriguez, won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature last year, and Rodriguez went on to find levels of fame that he’d never previously experienced. But now Rodriguez is facing legal challenges, and the director of Searching For Sugar Man is dead. I’m not sure what that says about the unintended consequences of out-of-nowhere success, but it sure seems like it must say something.
Billboard reports that Rodriguez is facing legal challenges over is original recordings and the rights and royalties around them. The whole story is a bit complicated, but it goes something like this: Rodriguez allegedly signed one contract, a songwriter deal, with the Michigan-based company Gomba Music. Later, he signed with the label Interior Music Corp. and released the 1970 album Cold Fact. On that album, the songs are credited to Jesus Rodriguez, Sixto’s brother, who turned out to be a fictional character. So: Rodriguez wrote all those songs himself, but he didn’t have the right to those songs because of that preexisting guy, so he made up another guy who’d supposedly written the songs. That lawsuit already existed, but it wasn’t clear that Rodriguez was a party to the scheme. Now, they’re saying that he was. It’s not quite clear whether this lawsuit is a minor headache or whether it threatens to take everything from him. In any case, it’s not every day that you see someone get sued for writing his own songs. And it’s tough to imagine that Gomba Music would’ve bothered with the lawsuit if Rodriguez wasn’t suddenly famous all these years later.
Meanwhile, Malik Bendjelloul, the Swedish filmmaker who directed Searching For Sugar Man, committed suicide last month. He was 36. According to Vulture, Sony Pictures Classics co-founder Tom Bernard, whose company distributed the documentary, has speculated that Bendjelloul may have been struggling with the question of how to follow up the movie: “I think he was depressed. He couldn’t find another story. You know, when you get that kind of fame — it wasn’t what he was looking for. It just came so easy. It was the perfect scenario for a movie. Everything happened right. It was the perfect storm. And if you’ve never had that — because he was just sort of a guy who was like, I want to make this story, and he made this story, and it was a perfect interpretation and everything happened right — how do you make that happen again? How do you re-create that?”