Documentary on Paul Simon's 'Graceland' screens at Sundance
A new documentary screening this week at Sundance, "Under African Skies," chronicles the making of Paul Simon's 1986 solo album, "Graceland," and seeks to resolve some of the political static that has long surrounded the work.
Floundering with writer's block after the commercial flop of "Hearts & Bones," Simon jump-started his career with "Graceland," which won a Grammy for album of the year. But it also unleashed public scrutiny and protests, including bomb threats, that dogged the "Graceland" tour.
Critics charged Simon with valuing his own careerist goals above the priorities of the South African musicians he worked with on the album. By playing and recording in the racially segregated country, the musician violated a United Nations cultural boycott — a cornerstone strategy in the fight against apartheid.
Last year Simon, now 70, released "So Beautiful or So What," but it didn't receive a single Grammy nomination despite scoring high with critics and ending up on many best-of lists for the year (though "Graceland" is being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame). It doesn't seem a stretch to wonder if the shadow cast by some of the furor surrounding "Graceland" doesn't still affect the public perception of Simon.
Director Joe Berlinger sought to answer some of those questions when he followed Simon to South Africa last summer for the 25th anniversary of "Graceland." During the 10-day shoot, Simon reunites with former "Graceland" collaborators such as Ladysmith Black Mambazo for an anniversary concert.
But it's not all back-slapping and reminiscing; Simon also faces some of his most vocal opponents, including Dali Tambo of Artists Against Apartheid. Berlinger, who arranged the meeting, wanted the film to deal directly with the album's political fallout.
"I made it clear I didn't want a puff piece, a Paul Simon puff piece, and he didn't want a Paul Simon puff piece," Berlinger said to Associated Press movie writer David Germain. "We established that we're going to do an honest exploration of these issues and also go deeply into how this music was made, which, to me, is actually the more interesting part of the film.
"The political story is relevant and has resonance in today's world as well, but how this album was made, the dissection of that music and that achievement to me was as interesting, or more so, than the political story."
Indeed, the documentary focuses on the more positive aspects of the legacy of "Graceland," with huzzahs from Oprah ("Graceland" is her favorite album, ever), Vampire Weekend (whose debut marries the "Graceland" sound with prepster joie de vivre), and David Byrne, no stranger himself to the music of the African diaspora.
No matter what feelings "Under African Skies" may stir up or put to rest about "Graceland," it has been heartily greeted so far. According to a Sundance report from USA Today, the premiere Sunday ended with three standing ovations from the audience, and it will screen twice more before the week is out.
— Margaret Wappler
Photo: Paul Simon with filmmaker Joe Berlinger. Credit: Victoria Will / Associated Press