PARK CITY – A pure-bliss celebration of Paul Simon’s landmark album “Graceland” coupled with an interesting if not unbiased look at the controversy surrounding its release, Joe Berlinger’s “Under African Skies” makes the 26-year-old album fresh again and could find a warm reception in a niche theatrical run.
Shot largely during a 2011 visit to South Africa for a 25th-anniversary concert, the film reunites the songwriter with the musicians who inspired the album and created its irresistible grooves. In between rehearsals for the show — where we get to see Simon rearranging some of his hits to interact more meaningfully with his guests — men like guitarist Ray Phiri and Joseph Shabalala of Ladysmith Black Mambazo sit to tell stories of mid-’80s recording sessions and the effect the LP’s huge success had on them.
A good deal of video footage from those sessions appears here, and it’s delightful stuff — not only a thrill to watch, but a great help in the doc’s efforts to chronicle how “Graceland’s” songs were assembled: Some were based on pre-existing South African tunes, some used instrumental beds cut-and-pasted from long, rambling jam sessions. If Simon has sometimes been accused of giving too little credit to others (Los Lobos has long claimed he stole “Graceland’s” closing track from them), he spreads it around here, and studio footage makes it obvious just how much he drew upon the creativity of the musicians he hired.
When he traveled to South Africa for those early recording sessions, Simon was willfully ignoring anti-Apartheid activists who had called for a cultural boycott of the nation; when the record became a global phenomenon, the African National Congress and others condemned him for it. Berlinger interviews Dali Tambo, co-founder of Artists Against Apartheid, about the group’s grievance and gets Tambo and Simon together for the first time. But while both parties seem relieved to clear the air, the deck is stacked a bit in Simon’s favor: Even viewers who agree with his rationale, viewing the record’s cultural impact as a blow against Apartheid, might wish it didn’t take him so long to apologize for offending people who had sacrificed so much in the struggle for freedom.
Politics aside, “Under African Skies” finds a few minutes to get endorsements from Oprah (“Graceland” is her favorite album, ever), Vampire Weekend (whose debut would have sounded very different in a “Graceland”-free world), and David Byrne, who graciously gives Simon credit for discovering African beats, never mentioning he himself did it years earlier.