I was sitting in a Manhattan movie theater waiting to see the newly Oscar-nominated Searching for Sugar Man, a documentary about the seeking and finding of an amazing musical phenomenon named Rodriguez. We were alone at the 11 a.m. performance, me and a self-described film "hobbyist" who was starting his trek to see all the films in the Oscar potential categories. I was not being random, having already been filled with a myriad of emotions that had emerged after I saw a 60 Minutes piece on the subject.
The adventure began with some of the key people fascinated at first by how Rodriguez died since there were rumors of his suicide on stage. And there was his music that, since the '70s, had inspired the then isolated country of South Africa accompanied many activists through their years of anti-Apartheid and social freedom revolutions. The mystery extended to the fact that he had not in those years "made it" in the States. But the "search" began at first as one to understand the circumstances of his death, with the passionate explorers never dreaming to find him very much alive and in Detroit, no less.
The search for Rodriguez (one of his songs is named "Sugar Man") began some years ago when a confluence of people came together from South Africa, where notably he has over the years been more popular than the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. His being found, with much of the world now discovering the beauty and ragged edges of his music and lyrics, has in fact been a gorgeous fairytale for the maker of this amazing story put to film -- the young Swede Malik Bendjelloul. In fact Bendjelloul did much of the filming on an iPhone 4 -- not to advertise Apple, but because of a lack of resources.
I seem to be most often captivated by the nuances of a subject and by the unexpected emotions found between the lines, and this was no exception. Rodriguez the musician, is fascinating, exquisitely so, but he is equally fascinating as a human being, along with his three daughters. So without trying purposely to solve any mystery of why he wasn't a commercial success in the States (now he is playing to sold out performances all over the world and right at home as well) between 1970 and now, some ideas came to mind -- quite dramatically as well.
The messages Rodriguez and his daughters give in interviews have to do with the dignity of the poor -- the concept that poor people are people with dreams and hopes and wonder that make them like us and vice versa. In South Africa, his music was described as setting people free but: there has to be a need to be filled, an appetite to be whetted for that click-age to take place. We may yearn to hold this man and his music in our hearts and to seek the romance of his grittiness but... But: are we ready to be go to the heart of his stories -- about our world, about social justice, about the freedom to feel, and about the dignity of everyone -- about the amazing stories behind so many who go un-listened to on a regular basis.
Rodriguez, for so many years, has been a scruffy guy who sang about a world he never stopped being part of. He didn't romanticize poverty and loneliness to glorify them, but to give voice to them -- perhaps to let us know what the experiences and the people on those messed up streets can be like. He and his girls moved 26 times, sometimes living in what any of us would consider terrible conditions: no bedrooms, no hot water, perhaps no water. Yet/and he managed to take them to museums, to libraries to imbue them with the sense that physical poverty didn't have to cancel dreams or knowledge.
We seem to assume that fame and recognition will change everything for everyone. This man, Rodriguez, defies that assumption or presumption if you will. He kept the job in a physically arduous day laborer position after he came back from sold out South Africa concerts. He may not be able to do so now since his concert schedule is itself if not arduous, then very very full.
The truth is he seems grateful to have been found, but with or without this, he seems to have been a man at home in his own skin.
About the mysteries, or whether the documentary is optimal or even perfect, they would seem a deflection from what pulls us to this man, right now, right here, in his home country, America. It may be that he has a sense of home within him that many of us long for, that goes way beyond our cars or vacations, or material goods or electronics -- beyond religious dogma or prejudice. He has something we yearn for, and so the questions may need to continue as to how we can get a taste from his music and presence, and then go beyond that to our own discoveries about our own directions, even our own mysteries.
It can seem contagious and even enviable to become a Rodriguez groupie, shouting his words and crying tears of belonging at his concerts. As I look forward to meeting him, and hopefully his daughters, I know that this is a visitor who will leave me and all of us to study what he has, and in some cases what we don't.
I suppose, even when I see the film again or after being in his presence, I will have to go home. I, as we all, will have to find home, perhaps taking some of the inspiration of his music and his spirit with us. In the deepest of ways, there are a humility and honesty that can't be bought by money. Welcome Home to a Truly Human, Human Being.