Searching for Sugarman: a must-see for artists

The documentary Searching for Sugarman tells an improbable story. So wild is this true tale,  Mike said he expected it to break into a Christopher Guest formula. It never did.

The story is this:
Detroit musician Sixto Rodriguez made a couple folk/blues albums in the 1960s. They didn’t sell, his label dropped him, he returned to his job as a day laborer. Life went on. He had a couple kids. He worked hard. He got by.

Meanwhile, a recording of his made its way to South Africa. From there a bootleg found its way to nearly every liberal white household in the country. Rodriquez’s music imprinted so deeply on the public consciousness that he became a mythological hero, complete with a mythological tale of dramatic suicide. To paraphrase a fan on the documentary, “He made us realize it’s OK to voice your disagreements with your government.”

In the 1990s, a South African fan wanted the truth about his musical icon and set out to look for him. After a strange campaign in search of him, he found his idol – alive. Until this fan made contact, Rodriguez knew nothing of his South African legacy.

It’s stunning. It raises skepticism and wonder at the same time.

It’s logic-defying bogglingly awesome – and the reactions to it reveal a lot about the character of the people that watch the film.

A few of the people I had the privilege of watching with immediately jumped to the negatives: he never got royalties for the original music he released (as his daughter commented… “Someone got rich. Not us.”)  One person tried to wrap his head around how Sugarman Rodriquez got paid for the documentary. Most just boggled at the sheer impossibility of it. Mike concluded that social media makes such an event an impossibility today. (I disagree, but ethnocentrism is a pretty big log to remove from somebody else’s eye.)

Rodriguez wound up playing eighty concerts in South Africa. He definitely made money from those. The audience I watched with just couldn’t figure out where the money went and seemed disbelieving that he would turn and just distribute it to family and friends while retaining the lifestyle he had before his fans found him. Almost everyone has emotional baggage with money, and this story brought it out in ways that revealed so much about those commenting. It was beyond their understanding: in this unique case, I think the money was no matter.

1)It was free distribution that made Rodriguez into a folk-hero. He helped stimulate South Africa on a pathos level, and whether he recognizes it he contributed to the end of apartheid.

2)It seemed to me that Sugarman couldn’t give a damn about the money. He really, really didn’t. He liked his hardworking jobs. He loves Detroit, even the broken parts. Admittedly, I may have missed something – I had to leave the movie for a little bit to do my post-injury PT. But from every indicator that Sugarman gave that I saw, the music mattered more than the money.

The scene where he opens to a packed stadium – after a life playing the occasional bar – just hit my heart. I wanted to hug Rodriguez myself, because the scene made me feel like I shared an amazing happy moment with this complete stranger on the other side of the screen. I was just so improbably happy for this guy who, from outward appearances, did not spend a whole lot of time on “what ifs” when it came to his own life.

For the artist, for the person that can put him or herself in Rodriguez’s shoes, the message is this: your work matters. Even if it doesn’t have commercial success, even if no one you know gets what you’re saying, if someone who needs to read it or see it is out there and you send it out, it will reach the person that needs you to speak to him or her somehow. Rodriguez spoke to a nation when they needed his words the most – even if he wasn’t there to say those things himself.

There’s a second story, underneath the fantastic belated reward to Rodriguez: the reward to the fans that tracked him down. Because this person remained curious about Rodriguez he found ways to look for him – even to keep asking questions in new ways. While the gap between his perception of Rodriguez based on his music and Rodriguez’s reality was huge, he was willing to keep asking and even hear the answers. As a result, he brought a small miracle to his country. Curiosity only kills cats. In this case, it resurrected a rock star.

I’m adding this to my list of supplemental movies for artists on iplanttheseeds blog. Abuse of Kingston Trio usually has me hating folk music… but this…this is good.