To celebrate the 25th anniversary of his album, Graceland, Paul Simon’s label asked filmmaker Joe Berlinger to make a documentary. Under African Skies, which premiered this year at Sundance and will air on TV this spring, follows Simon on a 2011 trip to South Africa, where he reunites with the musicians with whom he collaborated on Graceland, and meets with activists who had accused him of breaking the anti-Apartheid UN cultural boycott of the country while recording the album there.
The film offers a fresh take on something dearly familiar. Graceland‘s songs, soothing but dry in their humor, still have plenty of magic in them. In the late ’80s the songs lived a long life, through an international press campaign and tour. Then as well as now, Joseph Shabalala and his choir Ladysmith Black Mambazo steal the show with their sweet charisma and dance routines.
When Oprah appears in Under African Skies, she says Graceland is the kind of album that creates new space in your heart. I’m not sure if that means anything, but I think I know what she’s getting at. The album is buoyant and wonderful, but it’s nicer to listen to than to talk about. For this reason, Under African Skies is a real treat. Watch a preview above, and read our brief chat with director Joe Berlinger, below.
How did the film come together? I did not want to do a Paul Simon puff piece. I wanted to make sure that it was like a serious film. [Paul and I] met last year in March. I said, “Wouldn’t it be great if you were united with all these musicians from Graceland and did a concert?” We went to South Africa toward the end of July and spent ten days there. I’ve never done a film so quickly without any real planning.
The movie discusses the controversy surrounding Paul’s time in South Africa during the UN’s cultural boycott there. Do you think his decision to record in South Africa was the right one? I was very much a supporter of the anti-Apartheid movement, but I never understood the criticism of [Graceland]. The cultural boycott was about performers going to segregated white South Africa and performing for white audiences, with ticket prices that the black populous couldn’t afford. Nor were they invited to attend. But it was very grey if the cultural boycott also meant you couldn’t go in and record with the oppressed people. The criticism of Paul’s record and the fact that he recorded with black South Africans didn’t happen until the record came out and was a big hit. Paul was exporting and popularizing the culture that the Apartheid regime was trying to destroy. The other part of the boycott was South African musicians weren’t allowed to travel. But Graceland, the record and the tour, was a very a very humanizing experience.
The film is a political story, but to me the more important story is a dissection of creatively what took place. It was a delight to dissect the record. With sampling now, we take that whole process of assembling musical ideas from other sources and creating a backing track and then writing a song on top of it for granted. But that was revolutionary, both for Paul as an artist and for how songs are written. I’m 50, and I when Graceland came out I was 25. I fell in love with it, played it all the time and constantly go to it. When you’re feeling down, it’s just an immediately joyous, uplifting record.