WHAT IT'S ABOUT Paul Simon called it "in many ways the most significant achievement of my career," and also the most controversial -- 1986's transcendent "Graceland," portions of which were produced in apartheid South Africa in the midst of a United Nations-declared ban on cultural exchanges.
"Under African Skies" offers an extremely detailed accounting of the album's genesis, and specifically of Simon's collaboration with black South African musicians -- whose distinctive rhythms, riffs and hooks made up the fusion sound of "Graceland." It also looks at the political firestorm that followed. Some of the many interviews here include: Joseph Shabalala, founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo, brought to world prominence by "Graceland"; Dali Tambo, founder of Artists Against Apartheid, and a prominent Simon critic who says, "We saw him come in here as a threat" to the anti-apartheid movement; and even Oprah Winfrey, who calls "Graceland" her "favorite album of all time."
Reflecting on the old and now largely forgotten battles with those who said he hurt the anti-apartheid movement, Simon says, "The intensity of the criticism did surprise me." He also remains unrepentant.
MY SAY Great albums certainly deserve great anniversary tribute documentaries, and "Under African Skies" (produced by Joe Berlinger, of the "Paradise Lost Trilogy") comes reasonably close -- at least for those who look back on "Graceland" as the absolute epitome of musical accomplishments of the '80s. For everyone else, perhaps there's too much detail and analysis. Many fine archival performances are here (and good reunion ones, too), but the film really is only partially about the music, more centrally about an artist's individual rights.
Simon asserts an artist should stand above and beyond the political tumult of the moment, though considering the white-hot heat of that particular moment -- apartheid, which ended in 1990 -- it may all now sound a bit naive or even self-serving. But the passage of time has certainly validated his position. By bringing these musicians to the world stage, Simon may have helped hasten apartheid's end.
BOTTOM LINE Can't miss for "Graceland" fans. The political background is icing on this cake.