Paul Simon is undoubtedly one of the most well-known and well-loved musicians of his generation, propelled by his work with former collaborator Art Garfunkel before embarking on an equally acclaimed solo career. Arguably the pinnacle of his career has been his 1986 ‘Graceland‘ album, which infused Western pop with African rhythms – somewhat controversially as this excellent documentary demonstrates.
Winning the Grammy for Album Of The Year and selling in the millions, ‘Graceland’ wowed listeners with its leftfield approach. However, Simon’s decision to collaborate with black musicians in South Africa caused political debate and criticism – his actions were perceived to have been a violation of the cultural boycott, put in place in response to the apartheid.
Revered documentarian Joe Berlinger (recently Oscar nominated for ‘Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory’) investigates the implications of Simon’s decision both then and now, as the musician returns to South Africa for a commemorative reunion concert. One of the highlights of the recent Sundance London film festival, Berlinger crafts a heartfelt tale of tension, friendship and the inspiring power of music that knows no boundaries.
More than 25 years on, we can see the influence of ‘Graceland’ more clearly – look no further than the popularity of the likes of Vampire Weekend and Yeasayer. But moreover, ‘Under African Skies’ demonstrates the impact of Paul Simon in Africa from the conception of the album – not just on the strong-willed political activists who were striving for better conditions for all but also, the personal perspectives of his good-spirited black collaborators.
There will be few more joyous moments in cinematic history than seeing the archive footage of the African musicians jamming with Simon, while a collaboration with Ladysmith Black Mambazo proves awe-inspiring. Pleasingly, the artists reunite and we once again bear witness to the joy of their collaboration. As tear-inducing as it is triumphant, ‘Under African Skies’ is one of the greatest documentaries of all time. A must-see for any music fan.