Someone in my book group recently recommended to me a DVD called Searching for Sugar Man. I don't normally buy DVDs, but it just happened that the shop in Bristol where she found it is on my beat at the moment, and so I went in and asked for it.
It's a documentary, and it tells a real Cinderella of a story. In the early 1970s, two eminent record producers discovered a singer playing his guitar in a bar in the back streets of Detroit. No-one knew much about him; he even played with his back to the audience and a hat shading his face, as if he shunned publicity and played only for the sake of his music. His tunes were melodic, the kind that stuck in your head; his words were intriguing and seemed to come from the heart. He reminded them of Bob Dylan, but with a sweeter voice. He was called Sixto Rodriguez.
They made an album with him, using all their considerable expertise and resources, and, delighted with the results, they sat back to wait for America to fall at his feet. But it didn't happen. There was nothing but a resounding silence. Inexplicably, it bombed, as did the next one. Talking about this in the film, one of the producers was almost in tears, even after so many years: he simply could not understand why it failed. The record company let him go, just before Christmas: prophetically, one of his songs had been the story of a man who lost his job two weeks before Christmas.
That would have been the end of the story. But unbeknown to anyone in America, somehow or other a bootleg recording found its way to South Africa, where his protest songs found an echo in the hearts and minds of the people there who were rising up against apartheid. Over the next twenty years, Rodriguez became huge in South Africa: anyone who had a record collection would have his music in pride of place. It was the background to their lives.
No-one knew anything about him. There were rumours that he had committed an ultimate act of protest or despair, and killed himself on stage. Eventually, two South African fans decided to investigate. As far as they were able, they followed the money: to whom had the profits from all his record sales gone? The trail grew blurred, but in the end, they found a different lead - and a simple phone call established that Rodriguez was not tragically dead; he had simply returned to his life as a builder, and continued to live in the same house he'd always lived in. No-one he worked with had a clue about his early brush with fame, and he had absolutely no idea about his extraordinary popularity on another continent.
Well, the two investigators went to see him. They persuaded him to visit South Africa, where he played concerts to thousands and thousands of ecstatic fans. He strolled out there into the spotlight as if he'd been doing it all his life. His voice was just as good as ever. And the profits from his new-found fame? He wasn't interested. Apparently, he has given much of the money from recent concerts and records away to family and friends. he still lives in the same house, and he doesn't give two hoots for all the lost profits from the million of his records sold in South Africa during the lost years.
The film is absolutely gripping. It's just won a Bafta, and deservedly so.
Of course, I could make a parallel between the undiscovered genius of this likable unassuming man, and the fate of who knows how many other artists - children's writers among them! - who have also languished in obscurity, in or out of a garret. But in truth, that isn't the point. I just want you to look out for this film, because it's the most feel-good work of art I've come across in a good while. And the music's good too!