Under African Skies
Credits: Directed by Joe Berlinger and starring Whoopi Goldberg, Quincy Jones, Paul McCartney, David Byrne, Paul Simon, Maya Angelou, Okeyerama Asante, Harry Belafonte, Tony Cedras, Roy Halee and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Synopsis: Paul Simon returns to South Africa to reunite with the musicians, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who collaborated on his mega-hit Graceland. The album's 1986 release put Simon in the eye of a storm of controversy for breaking the UN cultural boycott of the South African Apartheid regime. Filmmaker Joe Berlinger follows Simon to South Africa for the album's 25th-anniversary celebrations, where he confronts his critics – including Artists United Against Apartheid founder Dali Tambo – and defends his appropriation of African music.
A fascinating blend of music and politics.
The energy and innovation of the music outweighs the effects of time
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: The defining question raised by Joe Berlinger’s fascinating documentary about the making of Paul Simon’s album Graceland is this: do the ends justify the means? A quarter century after it was released, Graceland is acknowledged as a masterpiece, a startling and intelligent fusing of African rhythms and melodies and western singer-songwriter fare. The record has sold more than 15 million copies, and proved both culturally and politically enlightening upon release – everyone from Oprah Winfrey to the alternative group Vampire Weekend are present here to cite its importance. But in making Graceland Simon defied both the United Nations cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa and the express wishes of the African National Congress (ANC).
Berlinger’s own defining work, co-directed with Bruce Sinofsky, has been the Paradise Lost trilogy about the struggle of convicted child murderers the West Memphis Three to prove their innocence, and in certain ways Simon has a similar outlook. In 2011, to mark the 25th anniversary of Graceland’s release, he returned to a markedly different South Africa to play a commemorative show in Johannesburg with the original musicians. Politely forthright and quietly determined, Simon also wanted to face the accusations that he inadvertently supported the apartheid regime and used his South African collaborators.
Simon, who now looks more like a Supreme Court Justice than a successful musician, faced a political backlash and public protests when Graceland was a success and he went on tour with the musicians. He doesn’t appear to have forgotten, and he’s a curious mix of artistic naivete and hardheaded assertiveness. “Why are the politicians designated to be the ones who tell us, the artists, what to do?” he asks, and to his and Berlinger’s credit, Simon sits down with Dali Tambo, the son of former exiled ANC President Oliver Tambo and the head of Artists Against Apartheid in the 1980s.
Neither man wants an argument, so they tell their respective stories and put their views across, and the way that Simon and the erudite Tambo exchange opinions is an echo of how Simon found inspiration in the work of South African musicians who in many cases hadn’t heard of the former Simon & Garfunkel songwriter when they were booked for studio sessions. “They weren’t free people, Paul,” Tambo says, but while many of the musicians had had shows shut down by South Africa’s then repressive white police force, they were happy to play and record with Simon, creating a musical synthesis that resulted in buoyant, complex songs such as ‘The Boy in the Bubble’ and ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’.
Berlinger captures wizened fingers on strings as the reunion gig is rehearsed, but the energy and innovation of the music outweighs the effects of time. Berlinger doesn’t overtly lean one way or another in deciding if Simon was right or wrong to record in South Africa, but he does show how the subsequent international gigs helped humanise the deprivations of apartheid for western audiences. The politics have faded but the songs are as good as ever, which is an answer in itself, but one that allows for the wealth of character and testimony contained within this documentary to be heard and enjoyed. Under African Skies, like Graceland, has some serious grooves.
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