Paul Simon was just doing what Paul Simon does back in 1985 when he swooped into South Africa to record the bulk of the music that comprises his solo masterpiece, Graceland. The problem was, what Paul Simon does is whatever he feels like, no matter whose national boycott he’s violating.
In the mood to experiment and slightly freed by the commercial failure of his previous album, Hearts and Bones, Simon fell in love with the music of South African bands like Stimelo and Ladysmith Black Mambazo. After drinking them in for a few months, he began thinking they could add something to the sound he was known for, so he flew to South Africa (on his record company’s dime) to record with as many of its musicians as possible in the brief period during which he could remain in the country undetected. At the time, foreigners were barred from working with South Africa artists, and Simon was not only a foreign artist: he was a world-famous hit machine and well-respected pop icon. In 1985, apartheid was roiling South Africa into a slurry of violence, and the African National Council — in an effort to take back power from the country’s ruling white minority — took the drastic step of declaring that all of the country’s culture should be cut off from the rest of the world until the end of apartheid. This, the logic went, would choke off the white minority from the spoils of black and colored South Africans on which it lived: if they ever wanted to profit from non-white artists, athletes, and scientists again, they would have no choice but to end apartheid.
Simon — who, in this documentary on the subject, cites in his defense the universal freedom of the artist to collaborate with others of his ilk — snuck into the country under the nose of the ANC, knowing full well that a cultural boycott was in effect. Presumably, he was so giddy with the strains of South African music running through his New Yorker’s head that he felt if he didn’t capture its vibes quickly, he might lose inspiration. In twelve whirlwind days, Simon recorded what became the most distinctive sounds on Graceland with South African musicians like Ray Phiri and the aforementioned Black Mambazo.Under African Skies deals with Simon and the key South African figures — both musicians and ANC representatives — who contributed to Graceland and the scandal that surrounded it. It’s been 25 years since the album became a hit, and Simon is currently dusting off his guitar for a world-wide reunion tour, complete with all of the original musicians. What better time for veteran director of fawning documentaries Joe Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) to give Simon a platform to justify his breaking of the boycott, as well as advertise for the tour.
The movie both outlines the scandal (which casts its shadow over everything) and pays tribute to the album. Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Maya Angelou, Quincy Jones, and Harry Belafonte all appear to recount their first listens to Graceland and tout their enduring love for its songs. It’s hard to avoid noticing that they all are black, which might be the film’s strategy for supporting Simon’s claim that he was trying to celebrate, rather than exploit, South African music. But the first word on everything goes to a gray-haired, tired-looking Simon, and because of this, Under African Skies implicitly absolves him of any culpability. This doc is a Simon-fest designed to dredge up and efficiently strike down a dirty chapter in his history, and in the process drum up good publicity for the musician. Yet no matter how you cut it, or how eloquent Simon (the man who’s written all those amazing lines) can be, the ANC had a point: Simon tried to honor a culture by directly violating a movement that was dedicated to helping it. The fact is, he was a rich, white man who descended on a situation that wasn’t his, took what he wanted (including a number of musicians in the flesh), and left.
But then there’s the album. Radiant, rousing, often gorgeous, and sometimes embarrassingly inspiring, its perfectly structured pop sound wouldn’t exist without the South African rhythms that Simon bullheadedly dug out of boycotted obscurity and offered to the international music scene. It’s hard not to relate at least a little to Simon’s disappointment that his masterwork was greeted with such opposition. Listening to Graceland, it’s hard to deny that Simon was genuinely entranced by South African music and did everything he could, after his violation of the boycott, to honor it. What he did to capture that music wasn’t by-the-numbers, and it may have even been offensive, but the product may prove what this sycophantic documentary can’t: that when art is the goal, the ends can and often do justify the means.