|Paul Simon in Under African Skies.|
Sounds of defiance
By Ed Rampell
Joe Berlinger’s complicated two-hour documentary Under African Skies has, on the one hand, a sonorous soundtrack featuring Paul Simon and his African Graceland band. On the other hand, the doc deals with a complex issue: The role of art and politics. When the better half of Simon and Garfunkel flew to Johannesburg to record tracks for an album mixing American pop and the South African sound, he ran afoul of a cultural boycott supported by the U.N. and African National Congress against the tyrannical apartheid regime, enforced in those gloomy days before Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
Twenty five years later Simon reunites with his onetime African bandmates and the doc examines the controversial role Simon played then and its resonance today. In crucial scenes the aging Simon meets one of the ANC revolutionaries who condemned the musician in the 1980s for breaking a boycott intended to strangle the segregationist state. Simon continues to decry the way politicians use artists and insists on the right of talents to express themselves. Who’s right? Having triumphed over apartheid, the ANC activist can afford to be magnanimous.
In any case, the music, featuring Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Simon, etc., is extraordinary, and creates a musical mélange that’s the dialectical opposite of apartheid.