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'Under African Skies': A Documentary Film Review

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The documentary Under African Skies is a great way to reconnect with - or be introduced to - Paul Simon's 1986 album Graceland.

Music aficionados already know that at the time of its release, the album marked a major musical comeback for Simon, whose previous album Hearts and Bones was a commercial failure. Graceland was a 180-degree turnaround for the singer, winning him the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1986 while the title song went on to receive Record of the Year in 1987.

But its success was not without controversy. The album was recorded in South Africa at the height of apartheid and many were outraged that Simon knowingly broke a cultural boycott and recorded the album in a racist country.

The Joe Berlinger-directed documentary pays tribute to the 25th anniversary of the album and chronicles Simon's 2011 visit to South Africa to reunite with the album's musicians. It was his first visit since the '80s and as Simon says at the beginning of the documentary, "Now we'll finally get the chance to talk about how we made the record and going on tour. ... That'll be interesting to me because it's the same event, but everyone's story is different."

They sure are. Simon's detractors were not only upset that he broke the imposed U.N. boycott, but others felt was nothing more than a rich, white man who stole songs born out of struggle so he could layer them against his own music to make profit. (Today this sampling and mashing is seen as a pre-cursor to hip-hop, points out a music expert in the film.)

Meanwhile, Simon saw it as collaboration of American and African music, and he hoped others would become fans of African music as much as he had, as witnessed by the overnight sensation of one of his collaborators, the a cappella band Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

"Graceland helped people around the world think there was a lot more to Africa than suffering," Peter Gabriel says in the film.

In fact, many felt Graceland actually put a face on apartheid, and when Simon went on tour with the African musicians, he further brought awareness to the issue.

Under African Skies is much more than an average music documentary. The subject of apartheid makes it a compelling political drama while rousing concert footage makes it a toe-tapping musical concert film. But more than that, the film raises the philosophical question of an artist role during political or societal unrest. What kind of responsibility do artists have in reflecting the changing times around them? What kind of fine line do they tread in getting the message across without getting caught up in others' political agenda?

At the same time, the film is a personal journey for Simon, who sits down for the first time one of his most outspoken critics during that time. For fans of Graceland, seeing how songs like "Boy in the Bubble" or "You Can Call Me Al" came to be or why the album was named after Elvis Presley's Memphis-based mansion all serve to deepen one's appreciation of the album and its songs.

By intercutting footage of past and present, the viewers also get to see how much things have evolved politically in Africa over the last 25 years. With interviews with African musicians, record producers, anti-apartheid activists and familiar faces such as Quincy Jones and Paul McCartney, viewers can see that even though a quarter of a century as passed since the album's release and surrounding events, everyone's memory is still sharp. Yet having a little distance due to time has made the players involved a little more compassionate and not quite so hard headed, while Simon is finally able to get some closure.