Searching for Sugarman encourages creativity


Searching for Sugarman is a story about one unique man, Rodriguez, but it is an encouragement for the rest of the observers and interpreters among us, the writers with a thousand posts and sixty followers, the musicians posting amazing songs with a couple of likes on Soundcloud, the artists whose gallery wall is Facebook, the creatives who work day jobs and create because they need to and want to even if they never get a check or an audience. Poets and philosophers write because they have something to say. not because they have something to gain. They have already gained, or they are in the process of gaining, some elusive but personally important thing that is the impetus for creating. When we cast our bread upon the water we have no idea when and how it might return. For Rodriguez it comes floating back nearly thirty years later.

In the 70’s a Detroit musician named Rodriguez makes a record that doesn’t sell. He goes back to his blue collar construction jobs. Meanwhile, in South Africa, owning a Rodriguez album is as common as owning Abbey Road.

Half a world away in Detroit, Rodriguez goes back to working construction, raising three daughters as a single dad, and becoming politically active in his city, championing causes of people who have been marginalized by society. Rodriguez enjoys living simply, still making music because he loves it.

For somewhat sketchy reasons that the film does not explore, Rodriguez never receives his royalty checks from sales in South Africa so he has no idea that his words affected the thinking of a generation of young people in South Africa. For some of them, Rodriguez’ songs legitimized their impulses to oppose their government and gave voice to the attitudes and messages already present in young South Africans about Apartheid and the South African government of the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Rodriguez was a mystery to his fans, with his own set of urban myths. Nearly thirty years later, a couple of South African fans decide to see if they can find out what really happened to Rodriguez. They eventually trace him to Detroit and get to meet him.

When he finds out about his fame Rodriguez seems happy and surprised but not overwhelmed. Rodriguez holds a degree in Philosophy from Wayne State University. In the film his daughters talk about early exposure to the arts. Rodriguez seems to genuinely value ideas more than material possessions.  He doesn’t seem bitter or disappointed with how his life has turned out.

Sometimes we have to create because the message that pounds to the rhythm of our own hearts has to be let out. We cannot make creation and self-expression dependent on recognition or payment or approval. We can’t always know how and why what we say will influence others. All we can do is tell our stories, make our art, and put them out there so that they might integrate themselves into other people’s stories with positive effect.

It won the Academy the best documentary award in 2013 but I somehow missed seeing it in theaters. I finally gave up on waiting to be able to rent it and bought Searching for Sugarman last night. I’m so glad I did.



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