At 35 minutes, “Alekesam” is a short documentary with a subject that could probably fill a Ken Burns-style PBS miniseries, full of political unrest, social uprisings, and jazz music: Hugh Masekela, a musician and activist who fought against apartheid (he was exiled from South Africa for more than 30 years), struggles to reconnect with his son Sal Masekela, a current ESPN commentator who is just now embarking on his own musical career. But while the doc tries to focus on the tenuous emotional connection between a distant father and a resistant son, it ends up coming across more as a fluffy promotional piece for Sal’s new album than anything genuinely probing or insightful.
Hugh Masekela has had an amazing life and an even more amazing career. A jazz trumpet player who incorporated African rhythms, he was exiled from South Africa for standing up to apartheid but found himself accepted by artists as diverse as The Byrds and Paul Simon (he helped inspire Simon’s Graceland album and then toured with the artist when he took that album on the road). In 1987 he wrote and performed the simplistic and insidiously catchy “Bring Him Back Home,” which became the theme song for the movement to free imprisoned South African leader Nelson Mandela. He also, in the fine tradition of musicians everywhere, had a pretty heavy substance abuse problem that lasted for several decades.
Hugh’s son, Selema (he now just goes by Sal), was born in 1971, and saw little of his father growing up. Sal went in an entirely different direction when it came to his career, partially in an attempt to distance himself from his father. He was an NBA sideline reporter for ESPN and a host of the popular X-Games for the channel. In recent years he’s made an effort to reconcile his relationship with his father, mostly through incredibly inauspicious means – a multi-part documentary series for ESPN that was timed to the 2010 World Cup (which was held in South Africa, not his first trip with his father but one meant to broadcast both the country’s importance and his own familial ties to the country), an upcoming solo album, and this documentary, which was directed by Sal’s friend and creative partner Jason Bergh (they co-founded Barkela Motion Pictures together).
And that is what makes the documentary so interesting and maddening. The focus of the documentary should have been on the reconciliation between Hugh and Sal, in the pain and heartache that must have accompanied the years when Hugh was away, and the deep psychic trauma that was inflicted on Sal. Their efforts to reconnect must have been messy at best, borderline disastrous at worst, and it’s interesting to think about the way that Sal must have had to come into his own to attempt his own musical career in the shadow of such obvious talent, ambition, and activism. You’d think that this would have been explored, too, since it is part of Sal’s prolonged public campaign that shouts, “Hey! I’m getting along with my famous father now!”
But instead it shies away from any emotional closeness, choosing to go through the standard (micro) bio pic motions – the early bits of Hugh’s career, his involvement in the fight against apartheid, that damn Nelson Mandela song that we’re still humming days after watching the documentary. There’s lots of historical footage shown and new interviews with Hugh and his hilariously crotchety producing partner, but precious little in the way of any real emotional insight, and the stuff with Sal seems even more nakedly self-serving, focusing almost entirely on his new musical material, to the point that you halfway expect an actual commercial to run for his forthcoming album, at the end of the movie.
It’s this tidiness that makes “Alekesam” so unfulfilling. Father and son are getting along well today, but what about all the emotional wreckage that’s littered that path? It’s too cutesy and superficial and for all the good Hugh did for apartheid, it would have been nice to investigate the toll it took on Sal. As a commercial for Sal’s new album, it works well enough (he really does have amazing vocal chops, inherited or otherwise), but as a documentary, it leaves much to be desired. [C]