On the Film Documentary “Searching for Sugar Man” (about singer Sixto Rodriguez of Detroit)
If you haven’t yet seen “Searching for Sugar Man” this post may not be for you, if you’re on spoiler alert. So-called spoilers never bothered me, so here goes:
This is about the comeback of a great folk singer who wrote his own beautiful, haunting songs that bombed in his native country. After 40 years of obscurity he gets the fame he deserves (which is still growing) because of a devoted independent record dealer, multitudes of curious South African fans, and an enterprising Swedish filmmaker.
Forgotten in Detroit, it turns out that in South Africa Rodriguez was an icon more popular than Elvis, his lyrics having inspired young people in the anti-Apartheid movement. Some went so far as to tattoo his shadowy album cover image on their chests and arms. Unbeknownst to the artist, his two albums had first been widely bootlegged in South Africa, then re-issued there by arrangement with A&M Records, selling over half a million copies. Not a penny of royalties, however, made it back to singer Rodriguez, nor a word of his faraway success. So he continued to live in poverty, supporting himself and three children with backbreaking work renovating abandoned houses.
That’s nice, you say, but what’s it got to do with the metaphysics of attention? It’s too obvious that Rodriguez got the attention of those folks in South Africa but didn’t in the States, and that’s the breaks. On an equally cynical vein, you could say it’s touching that he’s finally getting some recognition, at age 70, but imagine how many talented people never do.
Cynics, nevertheless, have to pull up short when reminded of certain precedents. We recall that the poems of Emily Dickinson were discovered in a drawer after her death, and now she resides in the pantheon of American’s greatest poets. Dickinson made one or two very shy attempts to find an audience in her lifetime, but failed. (See next post.) At least with Rodriguez, the era of bootlegging and music sharing kept his songs alive to be resurrected in his lifetime. Where would we be without those crucial people who pay serious attention, and act on it?
Consider the first line from Roger Ebert’s film review: “Do some stories exist only because we need for them to?”
In the documentary about Rodriguez, a Capetown record seller named Stephen Segerman, in Ebert’s words, “emerges as one of those figures independent music depends on—always there in his store, supporting and listening to music he believes in, spreading the gospel.” Then we have those who listened to the artist, connecting his lyrics with their struggle to end Apartheid. Ebert adds, “In the case of Rodriguez, the gospel had already spread through South Africa on its own, propelled by the power of the songs.”
Attention in the guise of curiosity eventually enters the picture. Segerman wanted to know whatever happened to the artist whose albums had sold so well. It was rumored that he’d committed suicide on stage, shooting himself or setting himself on fire. Enter the Internet Age, when Segerman could set up a website asking for information about this mystery man. And who should answer it but Rodriguez’s eldest daughter?! Enter a Swedish film director, Malik Bendjelloul, who thinks the search for this artist would make a great documentary, and voilà.
…Talk about the play of attention, and its potential power!!
Skipping ahead to Ebert’s last few lines: “The information…eventually dislodge[d] about Rodriguez suggests a secular saint, a deeply good man, whose music is the expression of a blessed inner being. I hope you’re able to see this film. You deserve to. And yes, it exists because we need for it to.”
Wow. Think about it. Could attention be the dark (invisible) energy of our world? The source of life?
In the film, when Rodriguez makes his first triumphal sold-out concert tour in South Africa, he thanks the audience for keeping him alive. The huge arena sings along with him, knowing all his lyrics by heart. When I watched the film, members of the audience were in tears, laughing with incredulous joy. It was ecstatic, wonderful. So full of what Dickinson calls “the thing with feathers that perches in the soul” – hope.
We were witnessing a miraculous fable that happened to be real. It was enough to make me agree with Ebert, that the film exists because we need it to. Does attention exist because we need it to?
It was telling that during all his years of obscurity and hard labor, Rodriguez kept alive his love of music, playing his guitar and singing. He kept attending to his craft, his art. So when the miracle of recognition knocked on his door, he was able to step out onto the stage with voice and chops intact.
A curious detail: Somewhere in his working life, when he’d made enough to go to college, Rodriguez majored in philosophy. He made a point of telling 60 Minutes that there was no shame in hard work, and no shame in being poor. Sounds like he’s quite an attending metaphysician.