That this feature-length documentary on the history of Paul Simon's classic 1986 album Graceland is helmed by respected documentarian Joe Berlinger sends a message. Mr. Berlinger is the author of the Paradise Lost documentary trilogy on justice in America and of the peasants vs. Big Oil lawsuit documentary Crude, as well as of Some Kind of Monster, the acclaimed documentary on metal band Metallica's therapy process. And the message his choice to direct Under African Skies sends is: this isn't going to be your average DVD puff-piece aimed at the hardcore Paul Simon fans. And it's not.

     Shaped as an oral history told by nearly everyone who was a part of the creative process around the making and performing of Graceland, Under African Skies uses the 2011 Johannesburg reunion of Mr. Simon with the cast of South African musicians who played on the album to contextualize the musician's daring but slightly irresponsible decision to combine his urbane, sophisticated songwriting with the urgent, celebratory music of black South Africa. Acclaimed as an outstanding piece of music upon its 1986 release, it soon attracted political controversy because Mr. Simon had deliberately ignored the cultural boycott going on at the time against apartheid-era South Africa to record on location with South African musicians - never mind that they belonged to the oppressed black majority.

     Mr. Simon insists his album was an apolitical plea for artistic understanding - somewhat disingenuous coming from someone so aware of a song's power to move or protest from his own past experiences with Simon & Garfunkel in the heady 1960s - but he does have a point in saying this wasn't a political summit but a pop record. In conformity, Mr. Berlinger structures the film as a dialogue between art and politics, music and society, symbolized in the lengthy conversation between Mr. Simon and Artists Against Apartheid head Dadi Tambo, where each tells his respective side of the story surrounding the album. Though the film never escapes the classic music documentary tropes, the amount of period footage and depth of interviews (beyond the crew and band involved in Graceland, David Byrne, Oprah Winfrey, Jon Pareles, Hugh Masekela, Philip Glass or Harry Belafonte contribute commentary) mean that this isn't just a hack job. Rather, it attempts an actual history of and meditation on the context and importance of a work of art in its time and place - and the songwriter himself is occasionally flustered at having to revisit a period that he readily admits was very "hurtful". As such, this is definitely not your usual talking-heads music documentary, and non-fans may even find something to chew on about the idea of the connections between art and politics.

Director: Joe Berlinger
Camera: Bob Richman  (colour)
Editor: Joshua L. Pearson
Producers: Mr. Berlinger, Jon Kamen, Justin Wilkes (@Radical Media for A&E Indie Films in association with Sony Music Entertainment/Legacy Recordings)
USA, 2012, 101 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, August 6th 2012


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