Friday, August 17, 2012

Under African Skies


UNDER AFRICAN SKIES (Joe Berlinger, 2012)

By most measures of success, Paul Simon’s 1986 album GRACELAND counts as a smash hit.  It has sold over 14 million copies and continues to enjoy a sterling critical reputation.  The album and title track won Grammys.  GRACELAND also was something of a career rebound after the disappointing commercial performance of his previous record, HEARTS AND BONES.

To others, hailing the album’s creative achievements in blending American pop and rock with South African musical styles was secondary to the political questions surrounding its creation.  Going against advice, Simon did not seek the approval of the African National Congress to collaborate with South African musicians and violated the cultural boycott the United Nations placed on the country during apartheid.  The documentary UNDER AFRICAN SKIES marks the 25th anniversary of GRACELAND’s release by revisiting the making of the album and the controversy associated with it.

Director Joe Berlinger organizes the film around Simon’s 2011 trip to Johannesburg to perform a concert celebrating the landmark album.  The singer-songwriter is reunited with those who played on the record and the tour and sits down to talk with Artists Against Apartheid co-founder Dali Tambo.  Although equal weight isn’t quite shared between Simon’s recollections and opinions and Tambo’s perspective, UNDER AFRICAN SKIES wrestles with the issues that differentiated these recording sessions from any other cross-cultural musical efforts.

Whether through naïveté or arrogance--or, more likely, some combination--Simon traveled to South Africa to work without accounting for the political consequences of his actions.  The points in contention are not minor.  Although he was not expressing support for racial segregation by going to South Africa, his critics suggest that ignoring the cultural boycott signified tacit approval of the National Party government.  Questions are also raised if he exploited South African musicians who made integral contributions to the songs.

UNDER AFRICAN SKIES is inclined to side with Simon’s view that as an artist he should not be required to submit to the disagreements and decisions between politicians and that he gave credit where it was due.  Short of parsing the liner notes, the archival footage of energetic recording sessions goes a long way in clarifying how important these hired musicians were in forming the songs’ foundations.  His justification for not following the cultural boycott is exceedingly idealistic, but it leaves open a topic that remains worthy of discussion.  South African music producer Koloi Lebona mentions that this album gave them a chance to make their music mainstream rather than keeping it confined to the Third World.  Does that make defying the boycott a nobler cause?  The lyrical contents of Simon’s songs were not at all political.  Should that matter?  

Berlinger tends to go over a lot of the same ground in UNDER AFRICAN SKIES in a bid to be thorough.  The repetition bolsters Simon’s defense while demonstrating that objections were also valid.  Even though, to some degree, the debates about Simon and South Africa are moot on this side of history, UNDER AFRICAN SKIES takes what could have been a puff piece glossing over the protestations related to GRACELAND and teaches the controversy.

Grade: B-

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