As a child, I didn't go to the pictures very often. This may may have been because of parental poverty or parental snobbery, or even parental puritanism. My father had, after all, been a methodist lay preacher in his youth. Even as a young woman I wasn't an avid movie-goer.
Then I met my movie mentor, a man who had been around movies all his life. For many years I carried around a slightly greasy brown paper bag on which he had pencilled a list of movies I had to see. Under the guidance of the paper bag I began to go to the movies and now I'm a regular. My taste is for documentary and art house, and I vigorously avoid Hollywood.
I'm lucky to have a cinema close by that indulges these tastes. The small cinema at Narooma only seats 25 (there is a larger one that shows “stuff like Potter”) and often there are a only a handful of people in the audience. There I have seen Of time and the city, The cove, Barrymore, Where do we go now?, Marley, Caves of forgotten dreams and First grader. I've also seen the New York Met's Madame Butterfly (most of it – a blackout cut it off in the middle of the third act), the whole of don Giovanni, and from the National Theatre One man, two guvnors and Hamlet.
Last week I bumped into my movie mentor again. “There's this movie you've got to see. Searching for Sugarman” he said. I've been in Warsaw for five months in a movie drought, so I take the recommendation and join three other people for Saturday afternoon at the movies.
Searching for Sugarman begins when a South African fan suddenly realises that the record sleeve for Rodriguez's Cold fact album contains no biographical information, and it documents the search for the man behind the music that was more popular than Elvis in apartheid South Africa.
I am not an ex-hippy or a rock and folk fan. My predilection for such movies as this is an interest in the documentary form and the sleuthing that is necessary to build the story. I'm also eager to encounter landscapes, conundrums and thought-provokers, the unexpected and interesting sidelights to a life where there's an intersection with history (Bob Marley singing at the Zimbabwe independence celebrations). Searching for Sugarman gave me all of these.
The landscape of Capetown was spectacular and beautifully filmed: the roughly conical hills and the road swooping round that stunning coastline. The Detroit footage was very different: run-down backstreets, tired snow and blocky skyline. So my landscape hunger was fed.
The conundrum for me was not so much why Rodriguez was ignored in America as how the rumours of his death in such public and dramatic ways (self-immolation or suicide by gunshot on stage) could have taken hold, since they were seemingly so checkable. One answer gave an insight into the power of censorship under apartheid, and that's where the power of the Sugarman story lay for me: the way his lyrics expressed the seethings against the oppression of apartheid. The image that encapsulated the regime was the record in the archives with a track scratched so it couldn't possibly be played.
The movie also offered a counter-narrative to the narrative of celebrity. The story of Rodriguez doesn't fit the usual celebrity story. At no point is he presented as a celebrity-seeker, with gimmicks to create that celebrity. The powerful introduction to him, and the defining image, is a journey through the fog of the streets into a smoky bar, with a vague shape gradually emerging, which proves to be him strumming, back to the audience. Maybe that's the answer to his lack of traction in America: absolutely no drama for audiences and media to sink their teeth into.
The unexpected lay in the trajectory of the story. High-powered managers expected Rodriguez to rocket up the charts, and he was a fizzer in the US. He doesn't end up living his life onstage, although when he is tracked down he does perform, mainly in South Africa. It's not a conventional rags-to-riches story. He doesn't seem to feel the need for verbiage or celebrity and its trappings. He continues to live in his rundown house in Detroit.
These were the things the movie offered me. I wonder what gifts it gave the three people who watched it with me.