“Under African Skies”: Documentary on “Graceland”, 25 years on (updated)

Update, May 24:

See this page for details on the various CD/DVD/Blu-ray packages being released June 5.

Update (May 18):

The film will be shown on A&E (TV), May 25 at 10pm.

Update (May 13):

A couple of film reviews:

And, to capture a bit of the flavour of the original album release, you can find many videos on YouTube of Simon’s original “Graceland” tour which followed the original album release. Many are from the final concert in Harare, Zimbabwe, including:

And, for a twist: Simon & Wilie Nelson perform “Graceland

Original post (May 9):

In April, the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema screened two showings of the Joe Berlinger documentary, Under African Skies, being released on the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon’s landmark (and controversial) Graceland LP.

The film’s trailer:

Those who don’t remember the original release of the album, largely recorded in South Africa and with South African musicians during the height of apartheid repression and brutality, might not appreciate the significance of the recording at that time, and certainly not the political controversy it raised. No matter how good Simon’s motives were, his work there contravened a UN-approved cultural boycott of the South African regime.

Protests greeted Simon after the release of the LP, and during the international “Graceland” tour that followed. He was fortunate, for his credibility’s sake, that the tour included two of apartheid’s most visible opponents in the music community: Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela.

(Simon recounts one press conference where someone had criticized him over these issues.  He claims he had to literally hold Masekela back as he asked the questioner, “What the f__ have you ever done for South Africa?”)

It’s an eye-opener for everyone: those new or not, to the album and its history. And, it’s apparent from the film,that the depth of the apartheid evil was an eye-opener for Simon, who was clearly naive when it came to the politics he was soon to be a part of.

It includes a good amount of film from the original recordings with the variety of musicians he used. None of the songs were actually written there; music was recorded, and Simon and his engineer took the tapes to New York, where they worked on finding ways to fit the music together, and Simon figuring out some lyrics that worked. (Surprising even himself sometimes… eg, the chorus to “Graceland” was completely unintended).

He returned to South Africa for the first time last year, meeting and performing with the original musicians, and most memorably, visiting the home of Dali Trumbo (son of Oliver) who led the cultural boycott and still insists Simon should not have gone.

It’s a moving, enlightening, thought-provoking — and musically wonderful — film; very highly recommended.

After its initial television screening, it’ll receive the full “silver anniversary” marketing push, with DVD, Box sets of various flavours and elaboration, and Simon will be touring with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and perhaps others.

Articles and videos:

An article in the May 6 New York Times: “Graceland After 25 Years

Probably the first taste most people had of the album was on Saturday Night Live, May 10, 1986. The album’s release had been delayed, but Simon was scheduled to host the show, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo was ready (it was probably the audience’s first exposure to that group). Ray Phiri and band (I was struck by the resemblance between him and Toronto’s Tich Maredza) , and the result…

And a video interview with Simon and director Berlinger at the Sundance Film Festival

Simon, with Miriam Makeba on the original “Graceland” tour, performing “Under African Skies”: