Under African Skies

22:47, Apr 03 2012

Once music documentaries started getting really popular on the film-festival circuit it meant that big, dumb obvious movies - the kind that don't need to happen - can get disguised; go on tour as it were, as part of the documentary circuit. I wrote about the recent George Harrison bore fest - and though not tied to any festival in New Zealand it is an example of the type of film that gets overhyped and so easily promoted.

Every year the film festival is a little too pleased with itself for shovelling s**t towards music fans and the general punter: If you liked Some Kind of Monster then you will love this! Or maybe you liked Love Story or 30 Century Man or The Fearless Freaks (I know I did) so you might also be the candidate for some other tired, lazy documentary that doesn't really have a point. But hey, it's about music so we'll just lump it in with the good ones!

The hackneyed hagiographies are getting hard(er) to stomach. They're outnumbering the music documentaries that are worth seeing.

So it was with a mix of caution and dread that I sat down to watch Under African Skies last week. I hoped the movie would be good. But I couldn't help thinking that it would be yet another unimaginative, not-needed music film.

Fortunately this is not the case. It's worth your time. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Yes, it's about Paul Simon and I'm very clearly a fan. But it's also about a time. About politics. And it's about the impact and influence of music - as much as it's about the music. It's both a celebration, a very obvious milestone kind of celebration, and a probe. It does attempt to offer more than one side.

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I am not sure you'd need to be a Paul Simon fan to see this film. Also I reckon Graceland is bigger than fandom. It's an album that was important. Part of my problem with the music documentaries that get the easy accolades these days is that they are safe and entry-level. And fan-pleasing. I'm as interested in music documentaries when it's an album/artist I don't know a lot about. If I want to remind myself why I like an artist, I can listen to their music again. From a documentary I'm hoping to get insight; context and background, other parts of a story that will send me back to the music. Not just some talking heads telling me that something was great, then some clips to support it.

So Graceland, whether you like it as an album or not, was something of a cultural phenomenon. It was an introduction of world music - specifically African music/s, specifically South African music - to the mainstream. Paul Simon had released a couple of albums that had, in a relative sense, flopped. He was a superstar across the 1970s because of his 1960s work as the songwriter and one half of Simon and Garfunkel. From there he was untouchable.

But 1980's One-Trick Pony and 1983's Hearts and Bones - two of his finest albums to my ears, two of my absolute favourites - did not capture imaginations or hearts at the time.

Simon heard a tape of African music that knocked his socks off. Being a huge star with a lot of pull, he had his record company make some calls and he was off to South Africa to meet some musicians and record some jamming.

The result, when it made it to the shelves nearly two years later, was an album that was everywhere. It certainly figured large in my life. What was that sound at the beginning of the record when The Boy in the Bubble kicked (loudly) from the speakers. Oh, it's an accordion! (I was nine at the time, by the way.)

Lyrics like "he makes the sign of a teaspoon/she makes the sign of a wave" and "my travelling companion is nine years old/he is the child of my first marriage" had me hooked, eager to hear the stories within the songs, that propelled the songs. But also, what was this sound driving the stories? So polished - but not your usual pop music. Sophisticated, engaging, and from another world.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Graceland's release last year, Paul Simon travelled back to South Africa to reconnect with the musicians he used on the album.

Documentarian Joe Berlinger captures footage of the rehearsals, interpolating archival shots from the album's conception. These are used to provide context for a political discussion where Simon is challenged to accept that he broke the political sanctions of the day to make the record.

Apartheid in South Africa meant that there was a cultural (and sporting) boycott. The story that many people received when taking Graceland to mind and heart, when playing the album on the turntables of the day, is that Paul Simon was some kind of folk hero for allowing these South African musicians to be heard; for introducing the sounds of Africa to  a mainstream pop audience.

But there's another story that was played out at the time. Simon's renegade actions were not applauded by all. He took the law into his own hands; he did not observe the boycott of the time - the rules. His gung ho attitude, his artistic selfishness, comes across - in this day and age particularly - like a spoilt baby-boomer deciding for himself what is right, justifying it by riding on the back of whatever might be left from a confused 1960s idealism.

Under African Skies tells the story of the album - its making, its law-breaking - and it has Simon telling his version of events to Dali Tambo, son of African National Congress founder Oliver Tambo.

Okay, so it's (ultimately) a soft version of a grilling - but still we have a skilled documentarian balancing the storytelling, offering both sides. Simon is either reluctantly contrite with that Sad Sam look he almost always manages to embody or he is the real hero here for taking his music to Africa and bringing back a sound that would mean so much to so many; creating a context for African music in a western pop-music setting, giving people a reason to research music new to them.

There is plenty of support for his actions - as an outcome. But did he do the right thing?

As well as presenting this situation and asking a few questions, the documentary does give fans the chance to revel in the music, to see musicians bonding through playing, reuniting to serve songs that have been loved around the world.

Also the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo - a key ingredient to the album's sound and success - put across not only a feeling of gratitude for being involved in the joyous music but for the exposure it has given them; for the chance to see the world. And then in return to have the world hear them.

Graceland might seem to you, now or then, like some album that is bloated and boring. But that's to misunderstand - or simply not be aware of - the cultural context. The impact.

I love Paul Simon's music - so much of it resonates with me. But I also think he was in the wrong with his approach to Graceland. Maybe that's what it took for the record to happen. Of course, as only Simon would enjoy (with his attitude expressed in this film that art knows no boundaries, does not answer to politics), something so right came from something so wrong.

Under African Skies captures (part of) a fascinating story.

You should see the film if you can. And you can. The World Cinema Showcase is bringing this film to New Zealand audiences in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. Click on the link for more details. Auckland screenings have been but it's perfect time for Wellington with Easter up ahead.

And if you check the programme there are some more great music documentaries - not just the shoddy, dull, obvious kind. The festival continues in Auckland until April 11. It runs in Wellington from tomorrow, April 5, until April 22. And the South Island dates are April 19-May 2 for Dunedin and April 26-May 5 for Christchurch.

So, have you seen Under African Skies already? And if so, what did you think? Or will you be keen to check this film out when you get a chance? Are you a fan of the Graceland album? And do you think that Paul Simon was a visionary for offering this music to the world, for creating something unique - at that time - in pop music? Or do you think that he was pigheaded and in the wrong? Have you never understood the fuss with this album?

Postscript: Joe Berlinger made the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster and before that the excellent Paradise Lost movies that look at the West Memphis 3.

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