There’s a mystery to every human life. How its trajectory seems headed in one direction when it mysteriously turns into another. How none of us knows the impact of our activities until they’ve been completed. And then often not even then.
The film, “Searching for Sugarman,” is a documentary about just such a life. In the 1970s, a Detroit folk musician named Sixto Rodriguez, came to the notice of some record producers, two well reviewed records were produced but nothing much happened after that. Everyone who heard the work figured they’d have the next Bob Dylan on their hands. But, no. Rodriguez’ career came to zero, record sales, zero, future, zero.
Which happens to many, many, many in the Record Biz. So Rodriguez returned to his work as a laborer, and disappeared from view. Except for some American kids who knew of his work and loved it. And what young person wouldn’t; the lyrics spoke of love and loss and the struggle for identity, the need to refuse all attempts to let other people define your life, to refuse to let governments dictate what our life should be.
And so one of them took the LP to South Africa at the height of the brutal apartheid years and since it was impossible to order any more LPs, soon people were making bootlegged tapes and the songs spread like wildfire to become the coded language of protest and rebellion against the regime. And so it came to pass that Sixto Rodriguez became a legend more famous than Elvis Presley. In South Africa, that is.
Back home in Detroit, Rodriguez knew nothing of this. He returned to a normal life, raised a family, worked hard, got involved in his community but never returned to his musical career which had ended in such silence.
Until the 1990s when a South African reporter started snooping around and in an amazing case of serendipity chased the mysterious Rodriguez to ground. And found out that he was not dead, despite the bizarre and dramatic rumors about him, but was alive and well and living in Detroit utterly unaware of what happened to his name and his music in South Africa.
And so an extraordinary documentary film was born (now playing at the Downtown Center, SLO) – the search for this musician and eventually his return to a South Africa that was in no small way, changed by his music, so he could repeatedly play to sold out stadiums full of generations of his adoring fans. As one of the film’s talking heads said, Rodriguez’ return was a once in a lifetime event, as if Elvis Presley had returned from the dead to play a concert.
And what the film also revealed is the eternal vagaries (and the, uh, "creative bookkeeping") of the Music Biz’s financial accounting system, the impossible odds of ever “making it” in the Biz, the total unpredictability of “fame,” why one talented singer rises to the top while another one disappears from view. And the mystery of creativity itself; How clear it becomes in retrospect that most artists only have just so much good work in them and when that’s completed, they’re finished. And how too few artists recognize that iron rule and go on to waste their lives in failure and despair, while a few lucky understand those limits and move forward to craft new lives.
And above all, the movie makes clear the magic and mystery of never knowing what impact our lives and actions and words and songs may have on others. Or how one man’s LP could help change a generation and a country.
As Kurt Vonnegut’s Bokonon would say, “Busy, busy, busy.” But I hope you won't be too busy to go see the movie. It's touching, exhilarating, extraordinary.