By Todd Gilchrist | The Playlist January 30, 2012 at 8:31AM
A simultaneous portrait of a great moment in music and terrible one in human history, “Under African Skies” tells the story of the making of Paul Simon’s Graceland, and the backdrop of oppression out of which it triumphantly emerged. Director Joe Berlinger takes a closer look at the creation of the landmark album via Simon’s collaborations with a cross-section of South African musicians, in the process highlighting a volatile time in that country’s history, and arguing that the record eventually contributed to the downfall of apartheid, if indirectly. Clean and accurate to its premise without necessarily transcending expectations, “Under African Skies” is a documentary version of “The Help” in that it completely satisfies audiences’ demand for social justice without doing anything surprising in the process.
Much of the film is a first-person account of the making of Graceland told by Simon himself. Stinging from the reception of Hearts And Bones, the biggest commercial failure of his career, Simon stumbled upon a recording by South African artist Boyoyo Boys, and wrote English-language lyrics to the composition in a fit of inspiration. From there, Simon assembled a sort of supergroup of South African musicians, who improvised and performed material which he later reassembled via techniques very close to modern sampling. In the meantime, however, Simon was censured because the collaboration was perceived as a violation of the economic and cultural sanctions imposed on the country because of apartheid. But as interest in the album picked up steam, and the power of the material began to win over music listeners the world over, Graceland soon became an unlikely bellwether of changes that would slowly transform the divided country into the integrated, multicultural landscape that it is today.
While the film examines the cultural repercussions of Simon’s decision to go to South Africa and employ these musicians in the creation of Graceland, talking with various authority figures who at the time decried his efforts, there’s something automatically touchy about any film that even potentially celebrates a white person who utilized (or depending on who you ask, exploited) a marginalized group and their art. Berlinger does a successful job avoiding those criticisms by highlighting the volume of opposition to the album’s creation, and then documenting the deluge of appreciation and enjoyment that the African artists felt in the process of collaborating with Simon.
As Berlinger himself has acknowledged in an interview with The Playlist, the story sort of stops just before the place where most others would go, which is into the 25th anniversary tribute concert that happened concurrently with the filming of the documentary. What that means is the final moments are literally devoted to a recent performance of some of the songs from the album, and in the screening I attended, audience members clapped along as if it was an actual concert (or concert film). While I think his choice is the right one, it only narrowly avoids turning the film into the story of how a white man got black musicians to record an album that stopped apartheid, and while the whole film is uplifting, it’s not quite sober enough in its remembrance of how terrible that time was for all black South Africans, not just those in the film. Meanwhile, Simon’s general humorlessness paints a marginally unflattering portrait of him; even as he attempts to be deferential to his collaborators (and even apologizes to a black South African politician who opposed the creation of the album at the time), there’s still a sense that he wants to take credit for the cultural reverberations in addition to the artistic ones.
That said, it’s a beautiful, cinematic, and engaging documentary, the sort of feel-good triumph whose enjoyability is enhanced tenfold if you’re even passingly familiar with the album. Berlinger is a smart and perceptive filmmaker and he does a consistently good job examining the creation of the album from all angles. Ultimately, the only real problem with the film is that it does exactly what it promises, and nothing more. So if you want to be reassured that art transcends borders, that different cultures can come together, and that the result of those collaborations can effect change in the world, “Under African Skies” is certainly the film for you. [B]