Paul Simon and 'Graceland' Get Renewed Scrutiny in a Riveting New Documentary
In 1985, when Paul Simon went to South Africa to record his Graceland album, anti-apartheid protestors showed up and waved signs that said, "Paul Simon is a sellout," "Be Careful Paul. Our Blood Shall Not Spill in Vain," and "Yankee Go Home!" At the time, South Africa was still implementing its vicious practice of racial separation, and Simon had violated a U.N.-supported boycott by traveling there to record with black musicians. Never mind that Graceland was giving those artists a chance to earn a viable living. Never mind that Graceland was promoting a cultural side of South Africa that humanized its black citizens. In the eyes of his harshest critics, Simon, a privileged white American, was badly betraying the unified front against apartheid.
Under African Skies, the new documentary that revisits the controversy over Simon's Graceland, puts the singer on the spot as he returns to South Africa 25 years after recording the album that became an international best-seller and a flashpoint in an intense debate that Simon admits was "very hurtful" to his sense of mission and his sense of self. On camera, the now-70-year-old Simon wrestles -- at times defiantly, at times defensively -- with the legacy of Graceland, an album that sold five million copies months after its release and ultimately snagged a Grammy for Album of the Year (1986) and Record of the Year (1987). Under African Skies is a powerful film precisely because the controversy still haunts Simon, even as people around the world continue to cite Graceland's positive impact on their lives.
Under African Skies screens July 21, July 28, July 30, and August 4 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, giving Bay Area audiences a chance to see a documentary that will undoubtedly vie for big awards of its own. Made by Joe Berlinger (West Memphis 3, Brother's Keeper), the movie features interviews with South Africans at the center of Graceland's recording and at the center of the finger-pointing that revolved around Simon's venture. Particularly notable is the on-screen conversation between Simon and Dali Tambo, a well-known South African activist who, as founder of the group Artists Against Apartheid, views Graceland with decidedly mixed feelings. During Graceland's recording, South Africa's white government was enacting a brutal form of repression against its black populous. "We genuinely felt," Tambo tells Simon, as they sit on a couch in Johannesburg, "that if you go there (during apartheid), you become part of apartheid's attempt to gain legitimacy. When you came to South Africa, it wasn't the ideal form of cultural exchange. They weren't free people, Paul."
Graceland both revitalized Simon's career and tarnished his legacy. Thankfully, Under African Skies devotes a good part of its two hours just to the music of Graceland, to the making of the album, to the South African singers and instrumentalists who worked on it, and to the musical reasons that Graceland made an immediate impact and seems as fresh today as it did in the mid-1980s. It would be unfair to couch Graceland strictly in terms of its controversial past. But art never exists in a vacuum, even if Paul Simon wished that it did, and Under African Skies covers another crucial question that dogged Simon during the making of Graceland: Did the veteran singer unfairly appropriate the music of South Africa to boost his career? The cover of the original album makes no mention of the scores of South African musicians who formed the musical foundation of Graceland. The back of the album also short-shrifts the musicians while giving official credit to the album's producer and to the album's engineer. It's as if guitarist Ray Phiri, drummer Isaac Mtshali, accordionist Forere Motloheloa and the other stellar South Africans on Graceland were second-class citizens. They, on the other hand, have nothing but praise for Simon, and they tell Berlinger they think of Simon as a "brother," as someone who not only brought their music to a worldwide audience but changed how they thought of white people. They love Simon. And he loves them. Their reunion in South Africa is a meeting of equals.
The African National Congress, which was apartheid's most important opponent in South Africa, derided Simon's 1985 visit to the country. After apartheid's end in 1990, after Nelson Mandela was released from prison, the ANC invited Simon to perform for Mandela. The twists and turns of Simon's Graceland adventure are all addressed in Under African Skies. And Berlinger covers other crucial subjects, including how black music has been under-recognized as the foundation for much of popular music. Paul McCartney, a friend of Simon's, explains how the Beatles adopted black American music to create hit after hit after hit.
Graceland helped usher in an important new era in world music: The West/Non-West collaboration, which subsequently brought Cuba's Buena Vista Social Club, Mali's Ali Farka Toure and other top musicians to international stardom. With Graceland, Simon may have ultimately done everyone a favor, even as he misstepped along the way. To see Simon clenched up as he discusses those missteps gives us a raw and honest portrait of him. People can judge anew whether Simon did the right thing in insisting on recording in South Africa. So many people told Simon it was the worst move he could make. For better and for worse, he made the move anyway.
Under African Skies screens at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 21, Castro Theatre; July 28, Roda Theatre in Berkeley; July 30, Cinearts at Palo Alto Square; and August 4 at the Rafael Film Center. For tickets and information, visit sfjff.org.
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