Everyone loves the album 'Graceland' by Paul Simon. Everyone.
Punk rockers thrash to Richard Hell in public, then secretly go home to fall asleep to the hypnotic hymns of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Descendants of Peter Murphy pull out their hidden vinyl collection as they take off their black makeup and wiggle out of their skin-tight leather. It's a landmark album - adding a pop sensibility to South African rhythms and infusing it with spirit-lifting a cappella created an infectious sound that was somehow tailor-made for the eighties.
You wouldn't think an album featuring "You Can Call Me Al" would be controversial, but when the album was released in August of 1986 apartheid was at its apex, and Simon unknowingly got caught up in a racially-charged climate that suddenly catapulted him into a wall of political fallout.
UNDER AFRICAN SKIES starts at the beginning, when Simon happened upon a cassette of instrumental music by the Boyoyo Boys. Entranced by the music, he began writing lyrics, suddenly determined to journey down to South Africa despite the fact that he could have just duplicated the sound with accomplished studio musicians safely in New York City. Once Simon set foot in the war-torn country, the tension was palpable from the start. Carrying into the studio, the testy vibe of the first rehearsal is fully documented here, eventually giving way to the new-found joy that every musician has felt when things start clicking and people start connecting.
Simon was a maestro of sorts during those sessions, combining and rearranging specific licks and melodies into something that resembled an actual pop song. The final piece was put into place with the addition of Ladysmith Black Mambazo - an all-male choir that had risen to prominence in and around South Africa. Their influence can best be heard on the now classic track "Diamonds On The Souls Of Her Shoes". The new assemblage of musicians had kept their little secret to themselves, until a now legendary performance on Saturday Night Live exposed them to the world with thunderous applause.
Seeing the music come together and the musicians forming an unshakable bond to create 'Graceland' is exhilarating, and it's actually quite moving to see these South African men and women experiencing the freedom of success as they tour the world untethered by the bonds of apartheid. At the time, the massive response to 'Graceland' ignited the anti-apartheid movement to rally against Simon by saying he was exploiting these musicians for a quick buck. After seeing the undeniable bond between the musicians through the majority of the film, the audience already knows that Simon went in with the best of intentions, virtually unaware of the incendiary climate he was barreling into.
To make matters worse, the United Nations claimed that Simon had violated a cultural "embargo" forbidding any artist from collaborating with anyone in South Africa. The thinking was that any creative endeavor inside the country would be used as political capital by apartheid proponents who were determined to spread their racist ideals throughout the country. What was not considered was the musicians themselves; of their own free will they gladly toured the world with Simon, introducing their culture to the masses. The result? International exposure for the anti-apartheid movement. The World Tour was strengthened when legendary artists Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba returned from exile to accompany Simon on the road.
UNDER AFRICAN SKIES is filled to the brim with celebrity interviews, featuring snippets with Sir Paul McCartney, Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones, and ... Oprah Winfrey? It covers the entire span of what is arguably the highlight of Simon's storied career, from the first kernel of inspiration to the lasting impact of the 1987 Grammy Award win for Record of the Year. Hearing each track booming out of the auditorium is also a real treat and gets feet thumping; the film begs to be seen on the big screen.
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