There’s never been an album quite like Paul Simon’s Graceland, and not just because of its ingenious blend of South African musicality and American pop songcraft. Simultaneous to the record’s critical acclaim, platinum sales and an armload of Grammys, questions arose about both its aesthetic imperialism and its political clumsiness. To collaborate with virtuosos like guitarist Ray Phiri and accordionist Forere Motloheloa, Simon had parachuted into a country still imprisoned by apartheid, an act that the oppositional African National Congress considered in violation of its long-standing artistic boycott. A quarter of a century later, director Joe Berlinger follows Simon back to the birthplace of his masterpiece—and to the scene of its fallout.
Though it’s constricted by the tired trappings of the legacy rock doc—staged reunions, breathless testimonials from Oprah Winfrey and Paul McCartney, riff-writing recounted in the language of the miraculous—Under African Skies is less interested in hagiography than in the moral ambiguities of making art. Time and changing tides have been kind to Graceland (and to the local musicians who’ve since become internationally renowned), but an on-camera meeting between the songwriter and ANC leader Oliver Tambo finds their conflict between creative freedom and revolutionary solidarity fascinatingly unresolved. He’s still slithery after all these years, but Rhymin’ Simon at least seems suitably awed by a phenomenon that became greater than the sum of its parts—even his own.
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