Title: Under African Skies
Director: Joe Berlinger
Starring: Paul Simon, Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Paul McCartney
Release Date: 22 June 2012
The cassette played during childhood summers, a Volkswagen dragging along the west coast bopping to Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland'; its infectious enthusiasm giving two fingers to weighty Irish skies. The gaiety wrapped between Simon’s voice and Kumolo’s bass brought more than a rebellion against the Irish climate as Under African Skies shows. It provoked outrage both in Johannesburg where it was recorded and worldwide in its aftermath. Subversive racial tensions were at play and Joe Berlinger’s film revisits this and how the album’s legacy has evolved twenty-five years later.
Of course with any work celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, especially a work as seminal as ‘Graceland’ there is going to be a certain amount of sentimentality in delving into its past. Berlinger keeps this to a minimum. Instead he focuses on the controversy of Simon breaking the UN’s cultural boycott by travelling to South Africa at the height of apartheid, infuriating political groups such as the African National Congress and Artists against Apartheid. The pivot of the picture is the settee discussion between Simon and Dali Tambo, founder of the latter group. Their discussion is the energy needed to ignite the film. Simon discusses his reasons for breaking the boycott as the prerogative of the artist while Tambo retaliates by stating he was an outsider coming to work with imprisoned people. By keeping the debate impartial, Berlinger ensures that Under African Skies is more than just a salute to a successful pop album.
Despite the political storm outside the studio, inside was as joyous as the music released. The original footage scattered throughout the picture shows the amazing intimacy that can develop rapidly between groups of unfamiliar musicians. Simon contacted African music groups such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo as well as dozens of other musicians on arriving in Johannesburg to join him in a twelve day jamming session. Yes, Simon was politically insensitive and arguably arrogant with his artistic inclination but the footage of his time in Johannesburg shows the power of improvised music and the lasting relationships it can form. It’s somewhat a pity that his producer Burnski felt the best method for producing the album was cut, cut, cut to the multi layered sound that flourished in the studio. It reined in the energy of the recording sessions to be under the control of Simon’s quest for a hit.
Under African Skies is at its best when Berlinger makes use of the wealth of original footage at his disposal. It is only when the film reverts to the rehearsal stage at Johannesburg for last year’s anniversary concert that the documentary slows. There are only so many times that one can hear Paul Simon described as “a brother” before yawns are induced, especially as the documentary lasts nearly two hours. However, Berlinger’s exploration of the relationship between politics and artists, the role of the artist himself means that this is not just for Paul Simon fans. A skilled two hour breakdown of ‘Graceland’s’ genesis means that it also is so.
In a Nutshell: Nothing soft in the middle. A landmark album given an honest treatment.
by Sean Finnan