[SFF: Preview] Under African Skies
Under African Skies
Without Paul Simon’s Graceland we wouldn’t have Vampire Weekend or any of the other purveyors of modern Afro-pop – or at the very least, it would be very different. The skittering, chiming guitars, the lilting melodies and rolling rhythms, the sometimes-abstract lyrics and wordless vocals, the collision of cultures – it’s all there on the 1987 album that Simon describes (quite accurately) as the high point of his career. The album was born out of collaboration with black South African musicians towards the end of apartheid, and the compelling details of this venture form the basis of Under African Skies.
Director Joe Berlinger (who formerly made Some Kind of Monster – the film that finally euthanised Metallica) follows Simon’s return to South Africa 25 years after Graceland’s release, where he reunites with both the musicians he recorded with and the anti-apartheid campaigners who denounced the Graceland project at the time. As Simon prepares for a reunion concert in Johannesburg, we are taken in delectable montage through the entire process of recording the album—from the beginning of the idea to the triumphant world tour—intercut with revealing interviews about both the music and the political context. After all, here was a white entertainer who, when the situation was at boiling point, broke the UN cultural boycott of South Africa to make a record.
Berlinger doesn’t sugarcoat the production or peddle empty nostalgia, but rather engages with the surrounding issues; through archival footage and new interviews (including Hugh Masakela, Paul McCartney and Harry Belafonte), the film expounds on apartheid, racism, musical exploitation and racial politics in a refreshingly direct way. Even the vibrant, almost under-the-radar recording sessions in Johannesburg were not completely free from the external racial tensions, and it’s intriguing to hear the differing viewpoints on the implications of the project, 25 years on. Anti-apartheid campaigner Dali Tambo tells Simon that although Graceland was good for the particular South Africans who were involved, “what’s good for the nation comes first, not just a few individuals.” Simon, meanwhile, is politely exasperated that “artists are always treated like we work for politicians!”
This documentary underlines Simon’s artistic (as opposed to politically subversive) intentions. But while songs like ‘You Can Call Me Al’ and ‘Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes’ are ostensibly apolitical, the message of joyous collaboration, celebration of different cultures and disregard of circumstantial conflict sent by Graceland was undeniably deeper and wider. In the slightly gauche words of one contemporary reporter, Graceland demonstrated that things other than suffering could come out of Africa. Under African Skies is an illuminative documentary about wonderful music and its fascinating context; it is both a celebration of the uniting power of music and a window into issues that still haven’t quite gone away.
Laurence Rosier Staines