An investigation of Paul Simon’s 25-year-old “Graceland” album as much as a celebration of it, “Under African Skies” is appreciably smarter than most celebrity musician docus. Credit certainly belongs to director Joe Berlinger (of the “Paradise Lost” trilogy), but also to Simon, seen soberly reflecting on the extent to which his influential fusion of American and South African pop, recorded partly in Johannesburg under apartheid, may stand as a particularly problematic example of cultural appropriation. Pic will be included in a “Graceland” box set this spring and will also air on A&E, although theatrical dates aren’t out of the question.
Sprinkled throughout the music-filled docu are modern-day scenes of the now gray-haired Simon exchanging political views with the South African founder of Artists Against Apartheid, Dali Tambo; he tells Simon that, with “Graceland,” he “became part of apartheid’s attempt to legitimize racism.” Simon counters that he and the South African musicians who inspired and played on the record “didn’t have anything to do with racism” and that “we treated each other as equals,” seeming to miss the point that by traveling to South Africa in 1985, he had broken the United Nations’ cultural boycott of the country.
Besides incorporating some splendid rehearsal footage from both 1985 and 2011 (when Simon’s band reunited for a tour of South Africa), Berlinger constructs a running inquiry into whether and how the borrowing of black music by white musicians — nothing new even in ’85 — exploits marginalized artists even when, as in this case, it propels them to international fame. Simon shared songwriting credit as well as royalties with South African musicians, but was widely interpreted to be the sole star of the “Graceland” show.
Celeb interviewees include Paul McCartney, who offers that the appropriation of black music has always been a tack of white pop artists; Peter Gabriel, who believes “Graceland” to have been important for showing privileged audiences that there was more to South Africa than suffering; and David Byrne, who considers the album to represent the “rejoining” of American music with its African roots.
By including images of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, Berlinger doesn’t quite suggest that Simon’s pan-national record aided in the anti-apartheid activist’s freedom, but neither does he prevent the viewer from considering the LP’s impact on race relations worldwide.
The film, whose tech credits are superb, is dedicated to the late South African singer Miriam Makeba and to all victims of apartheid.