Review: UNDER AFRICAN SKIES Shines New Light on Paul Simon's GRACELAND
If it were merely a decent concert documentary interspersed with some interview footage, this Paul Simon fanatic would have been entirely pleased. What we get instead is, I think, something quite extraordinary. Using the politics surrounding the recording of the album in a country still under the grip Apartheid, sidestepping a well established cultural boycott to do so, Simon opened up a can of worms that this film valiantly documents.
There have already been a slew excellent, Simon-related docs covering this period. There's Born At The Right Time, a PBS documentary that I have on Laserdisc that details the tour from the mid-80s. There's the fabulous Classic Albums series that highlights the recording process in detail, showing Paul at the controls of a soundboard picking apart minutia in the mix. There's also the Graceland: The African Concert film (directed by Let It Be filmmaker Michael Lindsay-Hogg) featuring Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela joining Paul onstage in Zimbabwe. Finally, last year saw the release of Mama Africa, detailing Makeba's own extraordinary career and incorporating her time with Paul.
With all this existing material, it'd be easy for Under African Skies to provide a mere survey of the existing material. Certainly a chunk of it is drawn from earlier footage, especially the Zimbabwe show that was the basis for a large part of the Mama Africa doc as well. What's so extraordinary about this doc, however, is that for the first time it brings first person accounts addressing the extremely complicated politics of the day. What starts out as a simple account of a reunion of Graceland-era musicians in a free South Africa soon turns into a nuanced, sophisticated debate about the nature of art versus the realities of political struggle.
It's so refreshing to see a film of this type have the participation of as many key people to tell the story. Director Joe Berlinger, recently nominated for his Paradise Lost film and known to music doc lovers as the guy behind the Metallica Some Kind of Monster flick, manages to get nearly every dream interview in place. The three main (white) musicians of the 80s who were at the forefront of bringing this World music in its indigenous form to a wider audience were Simon, Peter Gabriel and David Byrne (Sting, it may be argued, also may belong to this pack). The inclusion of these latter two are a welcome addition to the narrative, providing their own context to the record.
Similarly, Simon's friendship and long-time connection with the likes of Paul McCartney and Harry Belafonte allow each of these titans of popular music to contribute their own take on the story. McCartney's tale of listening to the tracks on a car player are wonderfully evocative, the thought of the two old friends sitting and listening to the music of another continent while Simon improvises vocal lines is an amazing image. Belafonte, meanwhile, remains an incredible presence on screen, his own take on the direction Simon took (against the advice of his friend) is both telling and impactful.
The core of the film's political discussion occurs between Paul and Dali Tambo, the UK-based ex-pat who helped lead the Artists Against Apartheid cultural boycott. Meeting at a house in Joberg, the two set out to tell each other their side of the story.
For much of the first two thirds of the film, Simon's take seems entirely out of touch. His actions of ignoring the explicit pleas of those calling for a new South Africa are made eminently clear, and he admits to encountering a hostility and systemic racism that Paul himself began to buy into. It's a startling admission, and testament to the credulity of the film that these instances aren't sugar coated.
What turned Simon around, and snapped him out of his mentality, was the introduction to the likes of Ray Phiri and the Kumalo brothers to his ensemble. Through these musical unions (many of which last until this day, with the majority of Simon's touring band still tied to these sessions) we see the power of artistic expression to transcend any political oppression, and the ability for those on opposites sides of the globe to find a shared voice with which to communicate.
Tambo's own take on the events may not be granted equal time in the documentary, but I believe his perspective is given ample articulation. Combined with Belafonte's account of the events, it's obvious how Simon's actions were for many justifiably seen as pigheaded at best, severely detrimental to the struggle for a Free South Africa at worst. While the intentions for artistic expression may have been pure (and for Simon to this day the only driving force that any artist should embody), there were real consequences, intended or not, to his breaking of the boycott. While a far bigger story in the more politically active environment of the UK, the film does I think an extraordinary job of contextualizing these very powerful conflicts of conscience, allowing for real insight into this turbulent time.
We also get the inclusion of the likes of Oprah (who ties her own interest in South Africa to Simon's record), Quincy Jones and Maya Angelou, giants of African-American culture providing their own take on what the recordings meant for them.
At its heart the film still allows for an unabashed celebration of this most extraordinary of recordings, culminating with the reunion show that's captured as part of the documentary. The interviews with the band members are vital and engaging. Tambo and Simon's own discussion about their own points of view are of course vital, but it's the likes of Ray Phiri that in only a few turns of phrase completely shatters certain expectations about the politics of the recording. To get a chance to see these musicians recount their experiences with such passionate insight is a true pleasure for any fan of the record.
Both a celebration of the power of music and an impressive, intelligent examination about the collision between art and politics, Under African Skies is not only one of the finer examples of music documentary ever produced, it's also a vital, important one. Too often issues of such complexity are allowed to stultify into strident side-taking, and to allow for such open and (I'd argue) genuine discourse is immensely refreshing. Simon's own take is certainly given the dominant part of the film, but it's a point of view shared passionately by those that actually worked on the record who came from the culture that was meant, for very good reasons, to be kept isolated from the rest of the world.
There are no easy answers here regarding the political disagreement, but out of this contrast of opposing, well intentioned views we're left with a touchstone of popular music. To hear the harmonies of Ladysmith ring out once more, with the staccato brilliance of Phiri's guitar plucking wrapped in the infectious beat of the Khumalo brother's rhythm section, all problems seem surmountable, all conflicts resolvable. It a magic thing, this little album, a beautiful synergy that decades later has only grown more in importance. It all the more impressive, then, that this documentary made of of equally disparate parts comes together to provide its own wonderful take on the events and the art. It's a blissful film, this work by Berlinger and co., a sheer privilege for the viewer to spend such quality time Under African Skies.