I very much enjoyed the documentary film Searching for Sugar Man. It’s about a Detroit singer-songwriter called called Sixto Rodriguez who records a couple of albums which fail to sell, and moves onto other things, completely unaware that within a strange cultural bubble on another continent, young white liberalish apartheid-era South Africans have come to regard him as an iconic musical figure.
Within that bubble everyone has his records, everyone plays his music at parties, everyone knows his name, and, just as he is unaware of them, they themselves are unaware that their enthusiasm is a purely local thing and assume that he is up there with Bob Dylan, James Taylor or Joni Mitchell. As to why he only made two records, his South African fans believe that he committed suicide in a very spectacular way, in front of a concert audience.
Assuming it’s true that he really had no idea of his South African following, Rodriguez must have been badly ripped off. I sometimes find out that my stories have been translated and printed without my permission in various small magazines, and that’s annoying, but I’d be very angry indeed if I discovered that my actual books were selling well in a country where I didn’t even know they’d been published. Rodriguez, however, came over as untroubled by this side of things and seemed unwilling to express any regret at all about the life that he’d actually lived, not as a famous musician but a worker in the construction industry.
When finally put in touch with his South African fans, he was clearly pleased to have large audiences filling up concert halls for him across South Africa, but what came over was pleasure that people wanted to listen to him, rather than excitement at stardom and fame. As a writer I know that need to be heard – I think it’s quite distinct from the desire to be lauded – and I found this part of the film extremely moving.
But I found it interesting too to think about what this movie told us, partly intentionally and partly not, about how ‘true stories’ are made. One ‘true story’, the lurid story about Rodrigues’ on-stage suicide, was clearly completely false – the man is alive to this day – but why did it gain currency in the first place? A Darwinian process must surely occur in which many rumours are generated and a few take root and become accepted as true when they meet some kind of need – in this case a need to resolve a puzzle – rather as some new variant of finch might find itself occupying some as-yet unfilled niche.
The other ‘true story’ is the film itself. I see (from Wikipedia, which will probably prevent a story quite like this from ever happening again) that some quite important facts were missed out of it. Rodriguez was actually also popular in Australia and he did two tours of the country in 1979 and 1981. I can see why this wasn’t included. Something must be left out in order to make a 2 hour movie out of a life, and to fit that life into some more universal story (in this case the one where we imagine we are alone and then find we are loved and cared about) which a movie audience will enjoy and relate to.
But justifiable though it may be, its ommission represents another manifestation of the same Darwinian process whereby stories are shaped and changed to meet the needs of their listeners and their tellers.