Under African Skies
Directed by Joe Berlinger
(USA/South Africa 2012, 101 minutes)
Sunday, May 20, 6:30 p.m. at the Egyptian
Tuesday, May 22, 4:30 p.m. at SIFF Cinema Uptown
At the core of this documentary about the recording of the Graceland album by Paul Simon and whole batches of cherished South African musical collaborators is a dialectic about the role of art in politics, life during (civil) wartime, and how societal evil can be vanquished by various creative means. Because that LP is a bliss-mess of paradoxes in itself, which consistently inspires new fans and renews pop music since its release 25 years ago, it’s easy to become engrossed in the controversies and tensions regarding its creation. That Under African Skies also features a lot of splendid playing from those controversial multi-cultural sessions makes it a must-see music film during the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival, and especially among the KEXP-sponsored Face the Music series.
As many world-changing things do, it all started with a mix-tape: Accordion Jive Hits Vol. ll, a cassette containing music from South Africa by the Boyoyo Boys, given to Simon during a dry spell after the commercial failure of his slick yet weird album Hearts and Bones. Simon’s response to the jittering, syncopated, joyful bounce of the songs was “Do we know anyone in South Africa?” It became his “favorite music” and he became tenacious in tracking down its source with a desire to collaborate with fellow artists from a very different part of the world.
That difference is when things start to get problematic. In 2012, it may be easy for people to forget or never be aware how truly awful and disgusting the political practices of the Apartheid system were. Though Under African Skies falls on the side of endorsing Simon’s travels to South Africa for creative inspiration, it doesn’t relent showing how brutal that system was, and that Simon may not have been helping in the short term by violating the boycott established by Artists Against Apartheid. The individuals and groups trying to change the South African political system may or may not have known exactly who Simon was or what his beliefs were, but his insistence on using musicians and producers from the nation put him on the opposite side of their strategy. And due to the deeply inimical way black people were treated in SA, things needed to change no matter what. So Simon had a lot to defend and argue about for awhile, in this country and around the world while on tour for Graceland.
But director Joe Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind Of Monster) allows Graceland fans such as David Byrne, Philip Glass, and Vampire Weekend to sweetly rhapsodize about the album’s unique compositions and extraordinary playing while setting up the story involving its assault on history and eventual contribution to changes in SA by promoting the beauty made by its musicians. After an initial honeymoon period of covertly constructing jams with highly-esteemed Johannesburg-based players such as guitarist Ray Phiri, drummer Isaac Mitshali, bass player Bakithi Kumalo as well as the Boyoyo Boys and eventually Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Simon brought some back to New York to take the album from an experiment in capturing exotic rhythms and into a dual-world blend of cosmopolitan lyrical observation with unusually fetching grooves. Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend speaks for a lot of kids when he talks about growing up in the ’80s endlessly listening to the Graceland tape in his parents’ car. And though the production on the album seems freeze-dried now (actually, it did then too), and arguments could be made that Graceland was an ambitious bit of first world karaoke-poetry co-option, the strangely moving pleasures of avant-pop like “Boy In The Bubble,” “I Know What I Know,” and “Gumboots” still give me goosebumps today, as they did then.
It was getting a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo on board though which seemed to be Simon’s ace in the hole. On the hypnotic spotlight “Homeless,” and recording their first song with music “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes” (a masterpiece of doo-wop, tribal harmonizing, and flickering folk-pop) for Graceland, and then appearing with them in an outstanding performance on Saturday Night Live, that drew a lot of mesmerized new fans to Simon’s controversial experiment. It also seemed to back up his argument about art and politics, and to calm many of his critics, when they saw the glory of this unlikely and unendorsed collaboration. These weren’t political songs, but hearing so many worlds combine musically reminded a lot of people just how gorgeous it can be when we equally create and give others a voice to do so.
As Simon says near the beginning, “Artists think and feel politically too.” What matters is how well it’s expressed, turning Oprah from someone who initially also boycotted the album into adoring it. Simon is spot-on when he criticizes politicians for using the energy of musicians to endorse their politics, and then don’t give back to the people who make or enjoy the music. It was an arguable move to dive head-first into musical miscegenation at a time when Apartheid was at its most vicious, but the results have a lot to fight for. This film captures a great deal of that argument, and thankfully a whole lot of the music.