Under African Skies (2012)

Director: Joe Berlinger


Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland is widely considered to be a landmark artistic achievement and one of the top records of all time.  It sold over 14 million copies, won two Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, and it introduced the world of South African music to a mainstream audience.  Despite all of that success the album is one of the more controversial ever released.  To celebrate the twenty fifth anniversary Simon went back to South Africa for the first time in decades to reunite with the musicians who he worked with and to open up the discussion again as to what exactly are the responsibilities of artists.

In the mid 1980s Simon, fresh from his first big commercial failure Hearts and Bones, came across a cassette by a South African group called the Boyoyo Boys.  The song was “Gumboots”, which he would eventually re-record for Graceland, and the South African sound is what inspired him most.  He became infatuated with the music, a style that was unlike anything anyone, was hearing in mainstream music at the time.  He decided to go to South Africa and work with musicians there in hopes of coming up with his next album.  The 1980s in South Africa however was a time of great political strife.  The National Party had been in power since 1948 and Apartheid was in effect.  The United Nations had ordered a cultural boycott of South Africa by all in hopes of ending Apartheid.  Simon however had it in his mind what he wanted to do for his album so in defiance of the UN cultural boycott Simon went to South Africa for two weeks to record with local musicians.

The documentary is framed with Simon gathering with all of the original musicians from those sessions in 1985 but the most interesting scenes are the ones between Simon and Dali Tambo, the co-founder of Artists Against Apartheid, discussing their points as to the importance of art and the responsibilities of an artist.  It is clear that twenty-five years later the two men do not see eye to eye on the subject still but the conversation is an important and fascinating one and also respectful.  It is Tambo’s belief that by Simon ignoring the boycott he hurt the anti-apartheid movement and it is Simon’s that he is an artist and not a pawn in politicians games.

The film, while definitely about the controversy, also documents the joy and experience of making the album as well and just what a risky proposition it was, both artistically and politically.  Simon is an intelligent and articulate artist and listening to his creative process and revealing the way in which the album was made was interesting and enlightening to me.  I love films about the creative process, especially when they are honest, and this one was both entertaining and revelatory.

Graceland is an important album in many ways and one of them is the discussion it brings up about the conditions in which the album was made.  Berlinger, who previously documented Metallica recording St. Anger in the raw Some Kind of Monster, takes a very evenhanded and open approach to the subjects.  Sure this is a movie included with the Graceland album so of course it tends to side a little more with Simon’s point of view on what he did but it definitely is an issue with a lot of grey area and it handles it well without just blowing up Simon’s skirt for 100 minutes.  Those who were critics of Simon and what he did are given their chance to speak, as well as Simon, and the topics they bring up are thought provoking and important ones.

About Jon Watches Movies

My name is Jon and I live in New Jersey. These are the movies I have watched since January 1, 2011.
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