Under African Skies

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An Album About Healing, Made in a Wounded Land
‘Under African Skies,’ About the Paul Simon Album ‘Graceland’

NYT Critics’ Pick

Luise Gubb

Paul Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo in “Under African Skies,” a documentary about his 1986 album, “Graceland.”

By 
Published: May 10, 2012

Music, politics and race: To what degree does a style belong to the people who developed it? At what point, if any, does musical fusion become musical theft? Is the greater good served by a noble project if it involves the flouting of solemn rules? And once the rules have changed, and the noise has died down, how much do these debates really matter?Those questions echo throughout“Under African Skies,” Joe Berlinger’s enlightening documentary about the making of “Graceland,” Paul Simon’s masterwork, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary. The film, by the co-director of the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, does an excellent job of recapitulating the controversies surrounding the album’s creation without bearing down too heavily on old news, while subtly taking Mr. Simon’s side against his critics.

Reconciliation is the theme of this movie about a work of art whose every riff and playful verse embodies the idea of music’s healing powers. As Mr. Simon points out, the lyrics for “Graceland” were not political but pop, and their language playful and absurdist. David Byrne credits “Graceland” with rejoining American music to its African roots, and Oprah Winfrey calls it her favorite album. Paul McCartney and Quincy Jones weigh in favorably.

The film skillfully interweaves several strands to tell a true story with a happy ending. The spine of the movie is a recent conversation between Mr. Simon and Dali Tambo, the South African co-founder of Artists Against Apartheid. Mr. Simon, without asking permission from the African National Congress, as his friend Harry Belafonte had advised, traveled to Johannesburg in 1985, when apartheid was still in effect, and recorded most of the album’s instrumental tracks in nine days. In doing so he violated the United Nations’ cultural boycott of South Africa.

Mr. Tambo argues that Mr. Simon’s ignoring of the boycott tacitly endorsed apartheid’s attempt to legitimize racism. Mr. Simon, who is scornful toward politicians’ exploitation of artists, respectfully disagrees. During their conversation the two men stand their ground, but their dialogue ends with a hug and mutual expressions of friendship and respect.

“Under African Skies” is as much about the experience of making “Graceland” as it is about cultural politics. We meet many of the principal musicians, including Joseph Shabalala, the leader of the a cappella group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Ray Phiri, whose skittering guitar is heard all over the album.

The film reveals the degree to which “Graceland” was an experimental work, with songs constructed by Mr. Simon and his engineer Roy Halee in the studio through a laborious editing process that involved reshuffling excerpts from jam sessions, then inventing lyrics around the beats.

Scenes of Mr. Simon and the musicians working in a Johannesburg studio in 1985 and of his rehearsals with the same musicians in 2011 in preparation for the “Graceland” reunion tour suggest that the album’s creation was a joyful, revelatory experience.

Mr. Simon, as usual, is extremely articulate in describing both the writing of the lyrics and their synchronization with the bass, which, given the music’s light, skipping beats of South African mbaqanga, proved to be a more reliable foundation than the drums. The film’s happiest moment is its clip of a “Saturday Night Live” performance of “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” by Mr. Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, that preceded the album’s release.

This sparkling, buoyant performance reminds you that great music outlasts the politics of the moment.

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