I watch a weird movie about João Gilberto. In it, an obsessed nerd stalks the Brazilian legend around Rio and other places he’s lived. He talks to friends who haven’t seen the man in person in a decade or longer. He’s following in the footsteps of another fanatic who did the same without success, then died an untimely death. I love João’s singing and playing but this movie creeps me out. What do these guys hope will happen when they meet their hero? He’s given them music but that’s not enough.
I think back to 2003. Deborah bought the tickets. We didn’t know we were supposed to bring our own food and wine. In the cafeteria off to the side from the music pavilion, we bought a mediocre overpriced dinner before going to find our seats. The majority of the crowd was on the lawn with elaborate spreads, tasteful blankets, and sturdy folding chairs. The hushed songs of the old man on stage was beside the point. This was rich-people outdoor happy hour. I was a smoker then and the no-tolerance policy—you have to go outside the gate of their hallowed grounds to light up—didn’t endear me to the place. I didn’t feel welcome there and could not see any way I ever would be.
For newlyweds who didn’t really know each other this outing was one of many hurdles we couldn’t clear. Deborah didn’t understand why I hated the place so much and I couldn’t explain it or understand why she didn’t instantly sense how awful it was.
The marriage didn’t last but João’s whispered songs are never far away. In the movie, the singer’s old friends say he’s supernatural. That he knows things without being told. That he will haunt you. Why does he rarely leave his hotel room and refuse to see anyone anymore?
I knew nothing about João when listening to him in that wealthy suburban venue. The town it’s in was just in the news because of a shooting on the Fourth of July. I don’t know much more about him after watching the movie. Neither does the filmmaker, I’d guess. In the last shot, he puts his ear to a hotel room door as his hero plays on the other side.
I don’t know Portuguese yet his songs move me. How does he do that? It’s best not to know. That word that comes up all the time, saudade, is commonly translated as longing but has to be more than that. It’s some kind of all-over emotional state. Not just a desire for a single person. Other singers sing the songs in the movie but it’s not quite the same.
It’s no use trying to a capture another’s magic, their secret. Even if João opens his hotel door you will never get what you’re longing for. He’s given you everything he could with his song.
—I talk to the cartoonist Laura Park on Wednesday. In the meantime, listen to the one with Leor Galil or some others.