DVD Review: GRACELAND's 25th is Celebrated UNDER AFRICAN SKIES

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
DVD Review: GRACELAND's 25th is Celebrated UNDER AFRICAN SKIES
This summer marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most seminal recordings of popular music. Paul Simon's Graceland is an infectious, fantastically crafted record that launched for many a deep and abiding love of South African rhythms, Cajun accordion, and the remarkable A Capella richness that comes from the throats of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo troupe.

To celebrate this anniversary, Sony Music has released a series of box sets, tied in with the home media release of Joe Berlinger's remarkable Under African Skies documentary. There's both a 2-disc and 4-disc set to choose from, and for collectors things get a bit frustrating. The 4 Disc set (which I unfortunately did not receive for review purposes) includes a 76-page book filled with interviews, photos, liner notes, and so on. The 2011 remix of the record is included on one disc, and another CD includes several demos and alternative mixes of some of the tracks. Frustratingly, both the 2 and 4 disc sets only have the films available in DVD format, the Blu-Ray of the Berlinger doc is only available separately.

The large box set's second video disc includes the long out of print Graceland: The African Concert title which is the basis for much of the concert footage included in the main documentary, as well as a key part of both the original Classic Albums: Graceland documentary and the recent (fabulous) Miriam Makeba doc Mama Africa. I have the original release of the concert title, and it's a fantastic thing to experience in full, but cannot comment on the quality of this re-release.

The CD included in the 2-disc set incorporates all the audio content and demo recordings that are split over two separate discs in the larger set. There's also a decent, brief audio interview with Paul discussing the album and its recording, but it's of course a far cry from the more in-depth examination found in the central documentary.

The core of this release, besides of course hearing the remarkable remastering of this touchstone recording, is the inclusion of the Berlinger doc. If you have an older release of the record, it's a worth upgrade, but for anyone even a casual fan of the recording, the documentary itself is so remarkable, so compelling that having another, newer copy of Paul's recording can't be a bad thing.

Under African Skies Documentary review
This is a repost of my theatrical review of this film, found here

Many will dismiss Under African Skies as just another music doc, a general catalogue of the recording of this seminal album. For me, the film nothing short of extraordinary, a probing look into role of art and politics, a stunning achievement that captures an fascinating chapter of both popular music and political turmoil.

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 privileged for the viewer to spend such quality time Under African Skies.

The Disc

Shot in High Definition, but incorporating vintage video tape and filmed elements (almost all re-framed to fit a 16:9 television), the standard definition release of the documentary remains satisfactory.

Two audio options are provided - 2 channel PCM stereo, and a (lossy) Dolby Digital 5.1 surround mix. For a relatively dialogue heavy film, the 5.1 mix does well to both situate voices in the center while opening up the soundscape well during the musical performances.

Supplemental Materials
Besides the demo recordings contained on the audio disc, the video disc contains a number of worthy additional elements that didn't fit in with the main running time of the documentary.

Additional Interviews

Whoopi Goldberg, Harry Belafonte, Ray Phiri, Barney Rachabane and Hugh Masekela are given a few more minutes to provide more details about their relationship with Apartheid, the recording of the record, the controversy surrounding its recording, and so on. This obviously isn't an instance where the black voices of the film are relegated to the supplements, but instead each addition has much more to do with the interviewees as individuals, rather than directly tied to the narrative disussing the Graceland record. The DVD lacks a "play all" feature, alas, but the talking-head interviews easily match the quality of the feature film, providing even more context to the work as a whole.

Whoopi provides a very personal story of her own challenges with the bureaucracy of the Anti-Apartheid movement, admitting that "this Bitch is crazy!". As she says about her own time in South Africa, "It definitely changed me... I'm a lot louder now."

Belafonte gives some more context about his own role in the struggle for a free South Africa, and admits, ruefully, how Paul Simon's whiteness allowed him into the country, where Belafonte's own skin colour barred him doing a similar type of recording in that country. As Belafonte is a kind of foil to Paul's perspective in the film, this additional interview provides a slightly more effusive celebration of the recording.

Ray Phiri admits upfront that he "shot his mouth off" regarding those who stood in the way of the Graceland project, and talks in this brief inclusion about his own choice to stay in a country that started to see him as a turncoat due to his affiliation with Simon. He remains a pillar of the documentary, and there would be a rich film focusing entirely on his story both before and after the recording project.

Barney Rachabane, one of the horn players on the record, talks briefly about how the recording changed the vibe for artists working at that time, and how Simon's gift was to "put some flowers on top" of that music.

Finally, Hugh Masekela is seen backstage jamming before the concert, and telling of his own story leaving his country, bribing to get his passport and to leave his country. The longest additional clip, it's another charming extension, and between this doc and Mama Africa he too remains and engaging and compelling subject.

Music Videos 

The original videos for several of the Graceland tracks are included. The Chevy Chase-starring "You Can Call Me Al" remains a favourite, but the surreal animation of "Boy in the Bubble" and the more straightforward video for "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" are nice inclusions.

The highlight for many will be the original 1986 SNL Performance with Paul and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. This was my personal introduction to any element of the Graceland recording, and I distinctly remember, at the age of 13, experiencing those amazing Orange shirts and incredible harmonies backing a remarkably proficient band. It changed my musical direction right there, and bore a life long appreciation for both South African music and the (still highly relevant and contemporary) works of Paul Simon.

That single performance alone helped solidify the lasting appeal of the record, and like Queen's gig at Live Aid, it helped completely reshape how a musical act that many felt was past his prime could still completely enthrall an audience.

Unfortunately, the supplement I was most hoping for, a complete performance of the modern concert from South Africa, was not included on any of the sets.

In Closing

There are few better ways of commemorating such an anniversary as throwing on the system of your choice the remarkable recording that is Graceland. Berlinger's documentary is one of the finest I've seen in sometime, something I think that's readily dismissed as just another trifle about a record. Despite my intense interest and foreknowledge about the subject matter, I still found on second viewing a film of quite astonishing subtlety and complexity.

Under African Skies is a documentary that really should be part of any collection, and being able to own it along with a fine remastering of the Graceland recording isn't a bad way to go about picking it up. While it remains extremely frustrating that Sony didn't decide to do a Blu-Ray version of the larger Box Set, and the lack of the complete (modern) show wasn't included, these are minor inconveniences compared to the package as a whole. Graceland remains a vital part of popular music, and the documentary only serves to enhance the appreciation of the recording and the circumstances which led up to this remarkable creation.
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