In 1986 Paul Simon went to South Africa, and collaborated with black South African musicians to create Graceland, an iconic album that introduced the West to the vibrant South African music culture, and arguably did more than anything to raise consciousness about the disgrace of Apartheid - then at its violent height.
Problem was, in going to South Africa, he broke the UN cultural boycott, and despite sound advice from Harry Belafonte, failed to go under the auspices of the ANC. Unsurprisingly, when the album came out, the praise for the music was almost drowned out by the political controversy. Was Simon exploiting African musicians? Were they right to tour with him? Was his project well-meaning but ultimately destructive of the anti-apartheid struggle?
Joe Berlinger's documentary explores these issues in depth thanks to unlimited access to Paul Simon, Belafonte, Dali Tambo (Simon's most vocal opponent, and son of the former ANC leader) and the musicians who played on the album. Berlinger uses video footage of the original sessions and 2011's 25 year reunion concert to frame interview footage, and to take us through the timeline of the controversy.
Paul Simon comes across as devastatingly honest, but slippery in his reasoning. He knew he wanted to go record with these musicians - it was an obsession - and he knew he was on thin ice so didn't tell Harry. He claims again and again that he was invited to go - as if the volition of the South African artists over-rides the ANC - but he was the one who pushed his record label for introductions, and most of the artists had never heard of him. To my mind, Simon is on more solid ground when he points out that the boycott twice punished the oppressed. It was designed to isolate white South Africa (hence the importance of maintaining the cricket and rugby boycotts) but the black South African musicians were effectively cut off from cultural exchange too. That said, Simon remains ambiguous to the end, even through the Q&A.
The documentary is provocative and Joe Berlinger is admirably even handed - allowing the opposing sides to present their arguments clearly and calmly. But it's almost too cool - too detached - too focused on the politics and not enough on the power of the music. The near two-hour run-time felt long (longer than the fast paced 150 minute MARLEY), and I was impatient for the documentary to end. For me, this is a movie that's really a 60 minute TV political doc.
UNDER AFRICAN SKIES played Sundance, Newport Beach and Sundance London 2012. It does not yet have a commercial release date.