Joe Berlinger’s Under African Skies is a positive breather after the heaviness of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. Taking its name from a song from Paul Simon’s Graceland, the doc follows the singer to South Africa to reunite with musicians he worked with during the making of his legendary album 25 years ago.
Much of the film is made up of reminiscences about the album’s production, and the controversy that followed its release, during a time when apartheid still existed in South Africa. For Simon, Graceland—which remains famous for its melding of South African music and American pop—was never about making political statements through music (Simon pointedly brings up Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko” as the type of explicitly political song in which he himself wasn’t expressly interested). It was always about the music first. In fact, it was literally about music first in the case of Graceland, because the music—much of it borne out of jam sessions in which he and his musicians played around with sounds and grooves before they hit on something he liked—came before Simon wrote the lyrics.
Not that Simon was wholly ignorant of the racial tensions in South Africa before he decided to travel to the country to record some of the music—though he admits in the film that it was only after he got there that he realized just how fraught the country’s race relations were. However, he didn’t allow politics to dictate what he felt he needed to do for his own artistic satisfaction—not even when friend Harry Belafonte warned him he should clear his visit with the South African government first. Simon didn’t listen, though, and it came back to bite him when he came under fire not only from the United Nations for violating its cultural boycott of the country, but also from anti-apartheid activists who felt his efforts weren’t helpful to their cause.
One of Berlinger’s more inspired conceits is to partially structure the film around a meeting with Simon and Dali Tambo, the South African head of an organization called Artists Against Apartheid and one of the more vocal critics of Graceland at the time. During the meeting, Simon explains his side of the story, thus leading into the section of the film that focuses most on the album’s making; Tambo ushers in the part of the film that deals with the controversy. The meeting suggests a clearing of the air of sorts, culminating in a moment of reconciliation between the two that, in this context, suggests the album’s lasting legacy as an act of cross-cultural empathy in addition to being simply a great album simply on musical terms.
While Under African Skies may function as a nostalgia trip for some, it does lightly suggest scintillating questions about how much of a responsibility artists have to reflect current political moments in their music, especially when taking the kind of risks Paul Simon did in making Graceland. Berlinger is intelligent enough leave such a difficult question hanging in the air rather than settling down on one side of the fence over another.