At the World Cinema Showcase, Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ is both celebrated and scrutinized.
Paul Simon’s Graceland was a controversial album, and understandably so. On the one hand, it could be said that the album gave voice to marginalised (and in many instances, forcibly silenced) South African artists who (and the music that they performed) otherwise wouldn’t have been heard around the world. On the other, Simon could be criticised for being another in a long line of “white” artists who appropriated marginalised forms of music made by “Others”, took the credit and financial rewards, and went on with his life. To be fair to Simon, he gave equal credit in some compositions, and toured with many of the musicians themselves; he presented the concept as more “collaboration” than “appropriation.” Another criticism of Simon was that, in making the album, circumvented the ANC and United Nations boycott aimed at preventing anything that would legitimise of the situation in South Africa. (While Simon may have had good intentions, another person could have, with less noble intentions, used Graceland as justification to work with an illegitimate South Africa.) Those making the arguments ignored the fact that all three interpretations of the album were arguably correct. Like most arguments, the opposing viewpoints aren’t actually mutually exclusive.
Joe Berlinger’s Under African Skies is structured around these viewpoints. While the film has a clear leaning in how it reads the album’s importance, it is framed around discussions between Paul Simon (defending his art and attacking the idea that art should be directed through a specific political viewpoint) and Dali Tambo (son of ANC leader Oliver, who argued that the purpose of the boycott was to alienate the apartheid regime, and any contravention of this boycott could render the boycott meaningless).
In between, the documentary looks at a 25 year reunion between Simon and many of the other musicians who performed in the massively popular album. It features a considerable amount of the music itself (perhaps something ignored in the whole cultural debate) with rehearsals from 1986, rehearsals from 2011, and the recorded work itself. There are also talking heads who frame the discussions, from other “cultural musical appropriators” like David Byrne, Paul McCartney, or Vampire Weekend, the musicians involved themselves, to people who enjoyed listening to the music.
Paul Simon does articulate his motives well throughout the film. Arguably, the opposing viewpoints are left a little lightly drawn by the filmmakers: there’s a huge and fraught history of colonialism, appropriation, and Othering which is simply given the glib treatment of Paul McCartney admitting he sold “white” kids Motown—and at the time, this was as a big a criticism as the fact that the album circumvented the boycott. While Simon was arguably much more collaborative than many others musicians who did similar things, it is important to acknowledge the minefield in which he was treading. And the ending smacked a little of the delusion we have in New Zealand, of trying to self-congratulate our anti-Springbok tour protests as helping “end” apartheid. But, and this is something that comes out clear in the documentary, it’s never actually the politicians or the journalists who end up capturing a moment in time for posterity. It is, for the most part, the artists who become the lasting definers. And as the documentary shows, the success of Graceland was that the music—at once joyous, catchy, empowering, and deeply political as a statement made in a time when people weren’t really listening—spoke for itself.