Joe Berlinger’s UNDER AFRICAN SKIES begins with Paul Simon’s 2011 emotional journey back to South Africa and the roots of his seminal album Graceland – but it unfolds into a kaleidoscopic portrait of the turbulent birth and ever-shifting life of a work of art.
25 years ago, Simon released Graceland to equal parts acclaim and controversy. The album broke open musical boundaries and brought together diverse cultures, but it split public opinion as Simon was accused of breaking the United Nations’ cultural boycott of South Africa, then a linchpin in the strategy to fight the nation’s intolerable system of apartheid. While the album went on to be widely celebrated for its revolutionary fusion of musical styles, for bringing the extraordinary gifts of under-exposed South African musicians to the fore, and for sparking a brave new musical world of mixes, mash-ups and globe-hopping collaborations to come, the questions Graceland raised in 1986 remain.
What is the role of the artist when society is in upheaval? Who does music belong to? Whose rules, if any, should artists play by? Do cultural collaborations matter? And what will be the legacy of Graceland’s indelible songs in a world that has since been politically, and musically, transformed?
These questions fuel the multi-layered probing of UNDER AFRICAN SKIES, as Berlinger (METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER, PARADISE LOST, BROTHER’S KEEPER, CRUDE) captures Simon reuniting with the South African musicians whose work became the heartbeat of Graceland and preparing for a 25th anniversary concert that carries profound meaning for all of them. New insights, old ghosts and the sheer exhilarating joy of raw rehearsals emerge along with revealing interviews with Simon and such musical legends as Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Paul McCartney and David Byrne – who measure the breadth of Graceland’s musical, political and cultural impact.
But the soul of the film becomes an impromptu, ultimately stirring, collision: an unanticipated meeting between Simon and the founder of Artists Against Apartheid, Dali Tambo, long an outspoken critic of Simon visiting South Africa under apartheid. Each man has his own passionate reasons, and without taking sides, Berlinger allows the audience to see all the angles and come to their own conclusions -- even as the music that triggered indignation and exultation comes to life again.
Berlinger says of the film’s open-ended exploration: “This is a film that doesn’t smash a particular POV over the audience’s head – and I think it is interesting that Paul Simon allowed that kind of film to be made. Some people might walk away feeling Paul made the wrong decision 25 years ago, while I think many others might come away feeling it was more complex – that it was worth the controversy to have musicians from opposite worlds finally able to share, as Paul says, ‘the deep truth that artists speak.’ Either way, what is remarkable is that apartheid now lies in the past, yet the music lives on as a great achievement. The power of the music is that it is still bringing people together.”
UNDER AFRICAN SKIES is directed by Joe Berlinger and produced by Berlinger, Joan Kamen and Justin Wilkes. The executive producers are Molly Thompson, Robert DeBitetto, Dave McKillop, Robert Friedman, Frank Scherma, Eddie Simon, Richard Story, Adam Block and Gil Aronow. The cinematographer is Bob Richman and the editor is Joshua L. Pearson.