It came together rather quickly, after Sony realized that Graceland – the defining album of Paul Simon’s solo career – was about to turn 25. Filmmaker Joe Berlinger, best known for his West Memphis Three documentary Paradise Lost, took a meeting with Paul Simon in April 2011. By July, they were in Johannesburg, South Africa filming Under African Skies, the documentary released last month in conjunction with the 25th anniversary box set of Graceland.
The most striking thing about the documentary, which first debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is that it as much about the controversial politics surrounding Graceland as it is about the Grammy-winning album itself. While Under African Skies portrays the joyful reunion of Simon and the native South African musicians that comprised the Graceland band, there are tense moments that examine the role of artists in politics and society that end up defining the doc. And Berlinger wouldn’t have it any other way.
Speaking with Radio.com, Berlinger explained that he was “concerned” when first approached by Sony about making a documentary with Simon, whom he previously worked with on the Sundance TV show Iconoclast.
“I’m a pretty serious social issues storyteller, and I didn’t want to just do a Paul Simon puff piece, the way these box set DVDs sometimes can be,” Berlinger said. “Frankly, after making Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, I have been approached a lot about making music films. I’ve turned most of them down, because to me, a film about music has to have a deeper story to make it worthy of putting on film.”
Simon, too, wanted to tell a deeper story – something Berlinger gives him credit for. “A lot of artists, particularly at Paul’s level, wouldn’t necessarily welcome the opportunity to re-open a very controversial chapter in their lives,” he said.
Graceland’s legacy represents, in a way, a generational divide. Those who were conscious of current events during the album’s 1985 making can remember the fuss: Simon made the record in South Africa with black musicians like Ladysmith Black Mambazo amidst the country’s apartheid struggle, thus setting off accusations that Simon broke the United Nations’ cultural boycott of South Africa. Simon’s opponents still claim he was in the wrong to come to South Africa in the first place, while much of the country still treats Graceland with “religious reverence,” Berlinger said.
But those who’ve just come to discover the brilliance of Graceland in recent years, perhaps because of its name-checking by new acts like Vampire Weekend, simply hear an influential, classic album. These younger fans can consider Under African Skies a necessary political history lesson, thanks in great part to Simon’s intense scenes with Dali Tambo of Artists Against Apartheid, one of his biggest political opponents.
Footage from the surprisingly candid conversation between Simon and Tambo runs through Under African Skies – and speaks far louder than the complimentary remarks made by Paul McCartney, Quincy Jones, David Byrne and more in the film. As Berlinger explains, the sit-down between the two opponents was totally unplanned, sparked only after Berlinger himself finally nailed down – and nailed – an interview with Tambo once arriving in South Africa for the 10-day shoot. The next day, Simon went to Tambo’s house for the on-camera, two-hour face-off, which comes across more civilized than one would imagine – and ends, surprisingly, with a hug.
“I think it was a healing conversation for both of them,” Berlinger said, “even though neither one of them altered their opinion on the subject.”