Every month I review a new documentary for CBC Radio One. Listen for it on weekend mornings!
Paul Simon has played you many different kinds of music over his career. His early years with Simon and Garfunkel put him on the musical map, and just last year, at age 69, Simon released his 12th studio album, So Beautiful or So What. In the middle of his career, Simon took an unlikely turn and landed in the heart of South Africa. He also found himself neck deep in controversy. Under African Skies in the new documentary that tells the story of Simon’s groundbreaking album, Graceland, 25 years after its release.
25 years! I can’t decide whether to celebrate or sulk. Didn’t that record just come out a while back?
Maybe Graceland still feels fresh is because it continues to stand out as a unique achievement in crossing cultures and a simply joyous occasion in music history. Simon hired the best musicians from South Africa to back up his familiar lyrical style and then shipped the whole affair back to the best studios in the Western world to give the album its signature polish. It was born to succeed, but not without some major hurdles.
Under African Skies succeeds as a documentary in two specific categories, politics and the musical process. It can’t be emphasized enough how political this record was, and the film does good job explaining it. Leaders from the African National Congress, at that time the opposition party led by Nelson Mandela, had asked the nations of the world for a cultural boycott while the country strained to overcome the shadows of racism and the grip of apartheid. Paul Simon insists that he wasn't drawn to build this album by politics, but only to display the joy and talent of the country’s incredible musical fabric.
"I treated them as equals, they treated me as equal, we treated each other as musicians, it was purely music," says Simon in the film.
The other fascinating section of this doc is the explaining of how this album was recorded. In 1985 Simon had been without a hit for years. He was listening to cassettes of a little known regional act called The Boyoyo Boys. When he went to South Africa, he didn’t have much in the way of lyrics, melodies or anything else. He just knew he loved what he was hearing.
Producer Roy Halee had this to say:
"The challenge on this album is there were no songs, no arrangement. So we finished all our editing, we made tracks that had some semblance of a song there, and he went out and tried desperately to put words to each one, and he did. He slaved at it, it was awfully hard, because there’s so much going on in those tracks, and they are very busy tracks."
Essentially Paul Simon built all the songs on Graceland backwards and with little or no subject reference point, an amazing feat considering how familiar these songs are now.
Under African Skies attempts to tell two sides to the Graceland political story, but it’s hard to look negatively at the record now as Simon gleefully gets the Graceland band back together for a series of retrospective concerts. From the South African rhythm section to the all-male zulu act Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the editorial definitely skews positive.
Along with interviews with the living musicians who were involved, the doc includes interviews with Paul McCartney, Oprah Winfrey, Harry Belefonte, Peter Gabriel, David Byrne of the Talking Heads and even Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live fame helping to tell the tale of this enduring recording.
Under African Skies has been screened at film festivals over the last year, but the best way to get your hands on it is by picking up the 25th Anniversary Edition of Graceland. You get a remastered copy of a nearly perfect album, bonus tracks, and the documentary is included on DVD in the package.
Under African Skies is available now.
Paul Simon’s Graceland: What it means to artists like Feist and Shad
Paul Simon's Graceland: 10 things you may not know
Q&A: Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Paul Simon's Graceland at 25
on Jul 09, 2012