In 1985, Paul Simon traveled to South Africa to record an album with some of the most talented musicians in the country. He had become obsessed with South African music - isicathamiya and mbaqanga and other influences - and he wanted to collaborate with those musicians to create a record unlike anything heard in America before. He befriended the musicians, gave them full royalties and credit, toured with them, paid for their travel around the world with him. What he did not do, however, is clear the collaboration with the African National Congress, the political organization fighting against apartheid and for the rights of the black South African population. At the time, the UN had imposed a cultural boycott against South Africa in an attempt to end the apartheid regime. Simon's Graceland album, a musical and cultural revelation, was perceived by many to be in violation of the boycott and to be an exploitation of the South African musicians.
25 years after the release of Graceland and the controversy that ensued, Under African Skies follows Simon as he travels back to Johannesburg for an anniversary concert with the original musicians on the album. It recounts the making of the album and the response after it was released. The documentary has interviews with Quincy Jones, Paul McCartney, Maya Angelou, Harry Belafonte, Oprah, David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, Philip Glass and members of the ANC and Artists Against Apartheid, as well as with the musicians credited on the album with Simon: Ray Phiri, Bakithi Kumalo, Joseph Shabalala, General MD Shirinda, Miriam Makeba and others.
But the strongest part of Under African Skies is its fair, plain presentation of both sides of the conflict. For the documentary, Paul Simon sits down with Dali Tambo, the son of ANC leader Oliver Tambo and the head of Artists Against Apartheid, the most vocal faction against Simon's endeavor. The two men have a long, reasonable, open discourse a quarter of a century after their initial debate. Tambo's argument is simple: he loves the album. He believes Simon's heart was always in the right place. He doesn't believe Simon exploited the musicians (a frankly condescending assertion of some considering the fully collaborative nature of Graceland) and he knows he only wanted to work on the right side of apartheid. But for Tambo, "You can't ask of everyone what you don't ask of one."
For Simon, refusing to work with talented black South African musicians because of a cultural boycott is punishing the victimized. Asking permission to create art is antithetical to his nature. He was compelled by something stronger than political correctness to create this album, and he felt that he and Phiri, Shabalala, Kumalo and others - who to this day maintain their pride in their work on the album - should have no part in politics. "The artist is always treated as if we work for the politicians."
Director Joe Berlinger never attempts to usher aside that controversy, nor make it the focus. Under African Skies deals plainly and objectively with the politics involved while emphasizing the art at the core of the film. Graceland is a brilliant, revelatory album that is still incredibly powerful today. Mere snippets of the songs in the documentary brought tears to my eyes again and again because they are still so moving. The footage of the musicians rehearsing and recording is absolutely joyous. Everyone is dancing, singing, laughing. They brought their families and jammed for days, improvising together. As one music critic in the film put it, "Graceland is early sampling. It's a layering of themes and ideas. Welcome to hip-hop." The album was decades ahead of its time, and even without its fascinating political history, the story of that album being made is a story that needs to be told.
When Simon decided to collaborate with Shabalala's a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Graceland grew into something pure and beautiful. It's also at this point in the documentary that the film is elevated to something truly special. The group rehearsed the song "Homeless" all night based on the strength of one lyric Simon had offered: "And we are homeless, homeless, homeless. The moonlight sleeping on a midnight lake." The next morning, in the recording studio with Simon, the group offers to sing the song for the first time for him, and Simon instinctively chimes in at the right moment, inspired by something beyond himself. Everyone in the room is amazed, and they get the song down in one take. The footage is incredibly moving, and it's at this point that the tears that had welled in my eyes for much of the film finally spilled down my cheeks.
The film follows Simon's performance on Saturday Night Live with Ladysmith Black Mambazo and their boycott-shunning world tour and amazing Zimbabwe concert with exiled musician Miriam Makeba. It shows the contention escalating to the breaking point, followed by the concert Simon and the others played in South Africa at Nelson Mandela's request after he was released from prison and apartheid had ended. It also shows the concert Simon played in Johannesburg in 2011 with his friends and colleagues of over 25 years.
Under African Skies is much smarter and more profound than most music documentaries. It's a powerful, beautifully executed documentary that entertains, informs and questions. The film celebrates one of the most artistic and important albums of all time while asking the question if Simon was irresponsible to create that album in the first place. It raises the question of the obligation of artists: is it to create art that transcends politics, or to use their fame to fight politics?
The documentary never attempts to answer that question, but Under African Skies does assert one thing with confidence. As Peter Gabriel says in the film, "Graceland helped people across the world to see that there is a lot more to South Africa than suffering."