Joe Berlinger, one of the men behind the Paradise Lost trilogy (a series of documentaries about the West Memphis murders), has journeyed with Paul Simon back to South Africa to uncover the story of the “Graceland” album. He may just have made the greatest music documentary ever.
Ezra Koeing the lead singer of Vampire Weekend says how “Graceland” was the album that every family had in their car for road trips. It has passed through generations imparting something new each time. We were once such a family, it was either The Beach Boys “Greatest Hits” or “Graceland” on cassette for each holiday for a solid 15 years. I just knew the album for the great music, the like of which you hadn’t heard before but instantly grabs you and you start nodding your head without realising. Initially I knew nothing of the controversy surrounding the album, the anger from the anti-apartheid movement and the political storm if created back in the summer of 1986.
Under African Skies is no puff piece, sentimental, 25th anniversary, marketing cash-in. It’s an amazingly compelling account, warts and all, of the situation that happened in South Africa when Paul flew in to record the bones of the album. It interviews all concerned with the creation and those opposed to it like Dali Tambo founder of the Artists Against Apartheid movement. Tambo was, and still is to a degree, one of the main objectors to how Paul went about creating the album. The UN had enforced a cultural boycott of South Africa and urged all artists not to perform there as an act of solidarity.
Simon had been given a cassette of “Gumboots: Accordion Jive Hits, Volume II” and was hooked instantly and he knew he had to do something with them. He approached his mate Harry Belafonte and asked him what he thought. Belafonte felt it was a good idea and said he would get in touch with the necessary parties like the African National Congress (ANC). Simon just went though informing nobody and in a sense snubbing those he should be trying to get on board. He didn’t care, he felt he shouldn’t have to ask any political parties for permission. As he remarks at one point “what’s next, are you going to want to see the songs I’ll play?”
So with palpable tensions in the air, Simon went about putting together the guts of “Graceland” by bringing different acts like General M.D. Shirinda and the Gaza Sisters and Stimela to record in Johannesburg. Here we have great archive footage of the recordings, showing how nervous everyone was initially and unsure how to act but then soon got into the feel of the record. Simon then decamped back to New York where he finished the album with the help of engineer Roy Halee, who had the arduous task of making songs out of the South African recordings. The real heart and soul of the documentary is Ladysmith Black Mambazo and their lead singer Joseph Shabalala. He makes us understand the impact of the album for his group and how special he felt being part of the process, remarking that Simon is his brother and how music can transcend all boundaries and skin colours. The group were thrown in to the spotlight when they appeared with Simon on Saturday Night Live performing “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” even though the album wasn’t to be released for months.
The interview between Tambo and Simon is fascinating allowing each to put across their side of the story. Simon with his views about artists being their own individuals unanswerable to any party or government and Tambo with his views about the notion of solidarity. As part of the blockade South African artists were not allowed to perform outside the country which lead to many protests from ANC sympathisers outside the gigs for Graceland especially in Europe. The touring artists gave great recognition to the cause of the South Africans with two of the performers having been in exile for the past twenty years. Tambo felt they were being too individualistic and should have stood with their persecuted brothers and sisters at home.
The album after initial positive reviews received a lot of criticism as it was almost perceived as some rich white guy going to South Africa to sing over black artist’s songs. This hurt Simon as he felt it was a totally collaborative process between all concerned and this really comes across in the piece and we can see this criticism doesn’t sit well with Simon. He is totally honest throughout even admitting how he almost fell into the all too easy trappings of racism while recording the record.
Admittedly I’m biased as I said at the start the album has been on my radar and part of my life for the best part of twenty years – I’m even listening to the album on vinyl as I type this up (pretentious? moi?). Whatever your allegiances Under African Skies is a riveting documentary and I couldn’t believe how anybody would think differently. The icing on top is the fact that there isn’t a single shot of an archive photo being zoomed in on. Bliss.
USA, South Africa / Directed By: Joe Berlinger / Documentary / 108min