Under African Skies

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<i>Under African Skies</i>

Director Joe Berlinger’s fascinating, immersive documentary Under African Skies celebrates the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon’s landmark Graceland album and also examines the firestorm of controversy that it ignited.

In 1985, Paul Simon traveled to Johannesburg, South Africa, to meet and record with the black South African musicians who had become a kind of inspirational obsession for him. Nine days in South Africa and subsequent sessions in New York and London culminated in the five times Platinum, Grammy-winning cultural touchstone Graceland. While the album’s musical excellence was nearly universally praised, Simon’s methods were found to be suspect. Although his trip to Johannesburg was approved by the black musicians’ union, the South African Musicians Alliance, it was not under the auspices of the African National Congress and, most notoriously, it violated the United Nations’ cultural boycott against South Africa’s vicious apartheid system of racial segregation and brutal white dominance.

At the time of Graceland’s release, this exacerbated other accusations that Simon’s pastiche of South African music with his own melodies might be more a case of cultural imperialism than of collaboration. Although Simon gave the other musicians songwriting credit and paid them three times union scale, there is some gray area as to the line between collage and co-opting in his use of existing melodies and grooves to fit his own lyrics and ideas.

Berlinger has already demonstrated his ability to dig to the root of an issue and his refusal to shy away from controversy in previous work, including his West Memphis Three Paradise Lost documentaries and his excellent rock doc Metallica: Some Kind of Monster. And he shines here, simultaneously celebrating Simon and his collaborators’ musical excellence while presenting arguments both defending and damning. Simon’s longtime friend Harry Belafonte conveys his love for Simon and his record along with his disappointment that Simon ignored his advice and skirted the ANC in his journey to South Africa. Philip Glass and Paul McCartney defend the purity of the art while activist and longtime Simon critic Dali Tambo still expresses frustration over his ignoring of the boycott.

The narrative core of the film is Simon’s 2011 return to South Africa to stage a reunion concert and, most poignantly, a conversation between him and Dali Tambo about their opposing stances twenty-five years ago and where they find themselves today. To his credit, Berlinger presents all arguments impartially and leaves the viewer to come to his or her own terms with Simon’s motives and actions.

The emotional core of this film, however, is the jubilant, gorgeous music and the musicians who created it. We are presented with electrifying performance footage, both from 1985 and 2011, of Simon and the true center of the Graceland sound—guitarist Ray Phiri, incomparable bassist Baghiti Khumalo, and drummer Isaac Mtshali. Berlinger provides extended interviews with the musicians, in particular with Ladysmith Black Mamabazo founder Joseph Shabalala, who may be the most charming man on the planet. The crew travels 350 miles to a remote village to retrieve the album’s accordion player Forere Motloheloa. Again we hear the lovely voice of the late Miriam Makeba and the trumpet of Hugh Masakela.

What unfolds is remarkable. Despite the arguments of the politicians and pundits, despite generations of cruelty from a corrupt government, despite critics and record labels, we have a group of musicians who share an unconquerable faith in music. The men and women who made this album and who toured to support it managed to transcend controversy and their own differences by a common bond in art and in the pure joy it can create.

It could be that it’s too easy now to discount some of the hurt that may have been caused by Simon’s actions a quarter century ago, and it also could be that it took time for the balm of the music to reach all the hearts involved. Regardless, by film’s finish, when Tambo and Simon embrace, it is evident that, differences aside, at the end we are left with the music. And the music is damn good.

Director: Joe Berlinger
Starring: Paul Simon, Dali Tambo, Joseph Shabalala
Release Date: May 11, 2012