Wednesday, June 12, 2013


My review of "Searching for Sugar Man" appears here in the Portland Observer:

My favorite documentary of 2012 (which also won the Oscar for Best Documentary) has been justly lauded for its wonderful music and its unique and moving underdog story. I loved all of those things too. But for those who care to notice, the film also contains some important wisdom about outsider voices, and some important encouragement for those who feel themselves to be outsiders.

If you don't know anything about this movie and are willing to trust me on this, my best advice is to watch it first and read my comments later. It's best enjoyed as I enjoyed it the first time --genuinely in suspense as the film unfolds a decades-long inquiry into what happened to a Mexican-American singer who recorded two absolutely excellent albums in 1970 and 1971 and then disappeared into obscurity when nobody bought them. Still, even if you read this appreciation or otherwise think you know the story from news accounts, you will nevertheless find surprises in this heartfelt film.

Director Malik Bendjelloul wisely opens the film with the admiring recollections of the men who produced those two albums, all of whom worked with some of the biggest names in Motown history and all of whom rank those albums among the very best ones they ever produced. Their enthusiasm for the artist who made them, the enigmatic Sixto Rodriguez, is palpable, and they narrate with genuine wonder their experiences in watching him perform in smoke-filled clubs with his back to the audience. All are baffled as to why those brilliant albums, marked by Rodriguez's poetic, stirring lyrics, didn't find an audience. One certainly can't fault their production; the albums (again available) hold up very well 40 years later. These men build up a sense of intrigue about this artist who you've never heard of.

What happened next could only have happened in the world before the Internet. Somehow a bootleg copy of Rodriguez's first album, "Cold Fact," found its way to South Africa, where it became hugely popular before the end of apartheid. In that repressive era, Rodriguez's skillful and soulful lyrics introduced a generation of young Afrikaners to the concepts of being "anti-establishment," of questioning authority and reflecting on the meaning of personal freedom.

"Cold Fact" eventually sold an estimated half-million copies in that small country and was one of three albums one would find in any young Afrikaners' collection (along with the Beatles' "Abbey Road" and Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water").

Strangely, though, no one in South Africa knew anything about Rodriguez himself. Rumors spread that he had killed himself on stage in some dramatic fashion, by shooting himself or setting himself on fire. Eventually, two ardent fans began a years-long search to find out what happened to their musical idol. Their enthusiasm for that search--and director Bendjelloul's enthusiasm for the remarkable story that attended its outcome -- fueled the making of this film, which was itself a passion project that took years to make.

As it turns out, truth was stranger, and more interesting, than fiction. While his music was fueling the anti-apartheid movement half a world away, Rodriguez went on living an obscure working-class existence in Detroit, where he had grown up in a large Mexican-American family.

He worked construction and restoration jobs and raised three daughters (quite well, by all indications---they are a compelling part of this account). He maintained an interest in music ("I attend the shows," he says mildly) and in poetry and art, appreciations he cultivated in his daughters. He also maintained an interest in philosophy (which he studied) and in politics, making an unsuccessful run for Detroit mayor (more evidence of idealism gone unnoticed). The passions that fueled his music, which speaks to the experience of dispossessed, persisted.

Eventually, as the film recounts, the combination of dogged detective work and the emergence of the internet enabled Rodriguez's South African fans to find him. His daughters recollect the surprise and deep pleasure of traveling to South Africa with him and watching their father step on stage to the deafening cheers of a sold-out crowd.

Watching the footage (much of it captured by his oldest daughter) is profoundly moving. His youngest daughter recalls a strange sense that they were watching him do what he was always meant to do, yet never imagined: he went "from being the outcast to being who he was -- a musician playing to his fans on stage." It is hard to describe the ease with which he accepts it all, as though he has been dealing with such crowds all his life, and yet also with unmistakable humility.

Which brings me to the two lessons that struck me most in this story. A once-skeptical reporter comments on how this story won him over in part because it embodies the deep hope that every person has -- that one day the rest of the world will discover and applaud one's truth worth. He is right, of course -- but for me, it is more than that. Rodriguez is a truly remarkable musician with a prophetic gift, who went almost completely unnoticed until his mid-50s, and might well have spent his whole life that way. This happens all the time, particularly to people who are poor and come from underrepresented cultures. It is worth reflecting on how easy it is for a dominant culture to miss outsider voices who carry deep and prophetic wisdom.
Second, Rodriguez himself is a profoundly inspiring example of a person who lives consistently out of his deep core. The story has an odd, time-capsule quality to it; Rodriguez writes and performs a good quantity of inspiring and thoughtful music and then, when it seems no one is listening, weathers his disappointment and simply goes on living his life. He lives it well. And when his fans find him 27 years later, they find a good and decent man.

He is not bitter; he has not stopped thinking and striving and taking chances. He has passed on to his three daughters a good way of living, and it shows in how they describe walking through the experience of newfound fame with him. He is gracious and does not waste time wondering what happened to the royalties for all those albums sold in South Africa (although I certainly wonder about that). One of his laborer friends likens him to a silk worm, noticing that Rodriguez transformed his pain into something beautiful. As the friend marvels, who among us can say that we have done such a thing?

Here is rich inspiration for all those who toil in obscurity, with no expectation of ever being heard. The inspiration is not simply the hope that one will be discovered; it is the hope that one could live one's life so well that in some sense whether one is discovered is not the pivotal issue. Rodriguez responds to his new-found notoriety warmly, but he does not appear to be much affected by it. One might search a long time to find someone like that.

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