Sundance 2012: Under African Skies

I’ve listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland at least a thousand times (no exaggeration), so if you’re looking for an objective analysis of Under African Skies, Joe Berlinger’s documentary about that seminal work, you won’t find it here.

Perhaps someone who doesn’t have virtually every lyric of every song on Simon’s masterpiece memorized, someone who doesn’t tear up just thinking of the “Mississippi Delta shining like a national guitar,” could do a better job of telling you what’s what when it comes to this movie.

All I know is that as I sat and watched it I felt my childhood come alive on screen. Each familiar chord reminded me of those countless hours I spent listening to these songs over and over again, whether as the soundtrack to family dinners, the accompaniment to late-night homework sessions or the auditory salve on a long, boring car trip.

Of course, I’m just one of millions of admirers of Simon’s masterpiece, an album that sold millions of copies, won Grammys, launched a massive tour and is today widely considered one of the most important cultural achievements of the past century. So Berlinger’s got that going for him.

The filmmaker hooks you in by playing on that enthusiasm and keeps you riveted by thoughtfully tackling the improbable journey of the Apartheid-defying record. The picture traces the initial source of Simon’s fascination with South African music and journeys behind the scenes of the recording sessions with a wealth of great artists (from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the late Miriam Makeba).

Intriguingly, Berlinger delves into the maelstrom of controversy that greeted Simon’s defiance of the cultural boycott on South Africa by making his record there with local artists. And by structuring the picture from the point-of-view of Simon’s return to the country in 2011, for a 25th anniversary concert with many of his original collaborators, the filmmaker is freed from a simple, straightforward recap of the familiar story. Instead, the distance of time affords a new perspective on just what the album represented politically, as the film incorporates deeply personal testimony from Simon, his collaborators and Dali Tambo, the co-founder of Artists Against Apartheid, which opposed Graceland.

A 2011 clear-the-air conversation between Simon and Tambo serves as a compelling framing device, fraught with emotion. No one is unfairly portrayed here. The picture unabashedly takes Simon’s side in its depiction of Graceland as a collaborative effort that offered South African artists the chance to perform on an unprecedented global platform, promoting a message of unity and drawing a different, positive sort of attention toward the black community suffering under Apartheid. At the same time, Berlinger respectfully presents the counterargument, which holds that the decision to go ahead on the album unfairly valued the lives of Simon’s musicians over the greater good of a people fighting against a horrendous, institutionalized wrong.

But above all, this is a movie about the magical, transcendent music that Simon and his colleagues made, an unlikely harmonious blend with lyrics that in their own abstract way evoke the human condition. Consider this verse, from the title track, and the hopeful message it espouses about the experiences of falling in love and falling apart, before finding communal redemption.

There is a girl in New York City
Who calls herself the human trampoline
And sometimes when I’m falling, flying
Or tumbling in turmoil I say
Oh, so this is what she means
She means we’re bouncing into Graceland
And I see losing love
Is like a window in your heart
And everybody sees you’re blown apart
Everybody feels the wind blow
In Graceland

From the thrilling, opening accordion chords of “The Boy in the Bubble” through the driving drum beats and enthusiastic saxophone of “All Around the World (The Myth of Fingerprints),” the final track, Graceland delivers a masterful fusion of South African and American sounds, a lyrical, emotional and never less than beautiful cross-cultural journey. It offers an artist at the absolute height of his creative powers, joining an extraordinary array of top-notch South African artists to collectively create a one-of-a-kind joyous sound that you just can’t forget.

And that sound lives anew, again, in Under African Skies.

The Upside: This is a deeply moving, personal tribute to my favorite album, which has played a hugely important role in my life.

The Downside: Can’t think of one.

On the Side: Director Joe Berlinger just earned an Oscar nomination for Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. If there’s any justice in the world, he’ll be back at the Kodak Theatre next year for this one.

Click here for plenty more Sundance 2012 coverage


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