Considering that many modern-day music documentaries present an unerringly glowing portrait of the artist, it’s a pleasant surprise that Under African Skies not only draws attention to the controversy surrounding its subject matter but digs into it a little. Directed by Joe Berlinger (the Paradise Lost trilogy, the Metallica-goes-to-therapy exposé Some Kind of Monster), Under African Skies celebrates Paul Simon’s career-resuscitating 1986 release, Graceland, while chronicling the singer-songwriter’s 2011 trip to Johannesburg to reunite with the South African musicians who helped inspire the album’s mbaqanga rhythms. But though there’s plenty of feel-good sentiment to go around—Simon hugs just about everybody he encounters—Berlinger also examines the firestorm that exploded in the album’s aftermath, when Simon was chastised for seemingly defying the U.N. cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa. Was Simon bringing injustice to light by playing with these oppressed musicians? Or was he exploiting them? Berlinger lays out the debate, and though he clearly takes Simon’s side, the movie offers such a spirited defense that you get the sense that Simon still feels haunted by the criticism. Nonetheless, just like back in ’86, the controversy ends up being drowned out by Graceland’s impossibly buoyant tunes, whose making the documentary engagingly details. Under African Skies is undeniably a Simon-sanctioned piece of marketing, but credit him for being self-aware enough to realize why the usual mindless self-congratulation wouldn’t have cut it.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 9, 2012