On »Where Are You, João Gilberto?«

The best, and perhaps only good movie about music is 24 Hour Party People because it is not about music but all about the myths the people who make it and everyone who listens to it have brought into being and in which they indulge; because it lets us know in no uncertain terms that those myths are a ridiculous mess that we have created ourselves. In a similar way, Where Are You, João Gilberto? is the best, and perhaps only good documentary about music because it is not all about Gilberto’s music and what it might mean to and in this world, but all about what it means to German writer Marc Fischer, who went to Rio de Janeiro to get the singer to sing just one song to him and then didn’t manage to make that happen. What he did was write a book about that experience and kill himself after it was finished.

The crucial term that is being used in almost every conversation that Georges Gachot—following in Fischer’s footsteps until he does indeed end up on Gilberto’s doorstep—has is saudade, insufficiently translated as longing. Where Are You, João Gilberto? is a deeply Lacanian movie in the sense that, yes, it is about a longing, or rather a desire to be close to someone or at least to approximate the objet petit a, but ultimately about the desire of the desire of the Other. As far as I know, Gachot didn’t kill himself after making this documentary, and you could say that’s because he did make it to Gilberto’s doorstep, leaning over to press his ear against the door to hear Gilberto sing the song that Fischer so desperately wanted to hear from the man himself: »Hô-bá-lá-lá.«

However, this is not a movie about the fan Gachot meeting his idol, but about fandom in and of itself: He is meeting Gilberto for Fischer, to whom the movie is dedicated as we learn once the credits roll while we also hear the singer perform »Hô-bá-lá-lá.« Where Are You, João Gilberto? is a good documentary about music because he does this behind a closed door. We never see him and only hear him, hear about him and hear of him throughout this film. Everyone has something to say about and of Gilberto, and most things that are being said are incredibly banal and magical at once, so seeing him would destroy the magic, it would reveal the banality of the person João Gilberto’s life, who at some point in his life decided to become a shut-in and thus shut out the world. What we get instead is the persona João Gilberto—or rather, a longing for it. 

I’m saying this as someone who has never cared about the bossa nova and, before this movie, had very little knowledge about João Gilberto; who never really listened to his music and will probably never do it again, because it’s just not my thing. I’m saying this as a someone who doesn’t really consider himself a fan of anything or anyone, but knows how crucial fandom—the longing for a persona, the longing for the person behind it, only real because it always remains unfulfilled, as a saudade for saudade’s sake—is for music, for musicians as canvases onto which we project something in order to identify with it as if that would grant us their recognition; as a closed door that we lean onto and press our ears against, hoping that the person on the other side is, in fact, singing to us, saying something about and of us with their music.

Hence, Where Are You, João Gilberto? expresses a, no, the great truth about music in a way that no documentary working with archival material and a bunch of talking heads, no biopic that oh-so-faithfully (re-)constructs some person’s narrative ever could. That truth is that pop stars are not real people like us; we who see and hear a persona and think that there must be a person behind it, an Other capable of desiring us in the same way that we desire their desire. In other words, Where Are You, João Gilberto? is about the ridiculous mess that is the human existence and how we cannot possibly not feel like we’re being left alone with it, which is why we’re creating myths to make sense of it. It is a movie about how music is never about music; a movie about Marc Fischer caving in under the weight of saudade.