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Protest Songs: “Under African Skies” and the Power of Music Docs

Protest Songs: "Under African Skies" and the Power of Music Docs

There are no shortage of music docs out there, and more than a few also intermingle song with notions of political protest (“Sing Your Song,” “Amandla: A Revolution in Four Part Harmony,” “The Refugee All Stars”). And while I’m not necessarily a fan of the genre, I was particularly moved by two new films that tackled the role of musical artists and Apartheid-era South Africa at Sundance this year, “Searching for Sugar Man,” which opens later this summer, and “Under African Skies,” which is getting a limited release, starting this weekend.

Here are excerpts from my Sundance Screen Daily review of “Under African Skies,” which follows the controversy around the making of Paul Simon’s Graceland album in the 1980s.

“‘Under African Skies’ is more than a mere concert film, tackling the thorny issue of the role of artists in society.

“The film successfully balances multiple storylines: the artist’s return to South Africa for a reunion concert, archival footage of the making of the album decades before, and comments from the many people at the center of the political firestorm that surrounded Simon at the time, particularly a tête-à-tête with Artists Against Apartheid founder Dali Tambo, who was against Simon’s work in South Africa.”

“One of the main charges leveled at Simon was his violation of the United Nations boycott of South Africa at the time, which was meant to isolate the harshly racist Apartheid regime. In frank interviews, Simon actively defends his decision, to both Tambo and Berlinger’s questioning camera, claiming that his work was all about mutual creation and sharing. ‘It was purely musical,’ he says.”

“If Simon’s stance may seem a little naïve, denying the political realities of South Africa in the 1980s, Berlinger’s documentary makes the case that the cultural boycott was not an effective policy, only acting to isolate the very people and artists it was meant to help. As Graceland’s South African guitarist Ray Phiri says after he was asked to abandon the Graceland tour by the African National Congress, ‘How can you victimize the victim twice?'”

“The documentary also addresses the “rich white guy” debate, as some suggested Simon was like a tourist taking pictures and “Simon-izing” the African music. But a number of persuasive voices—from music critics to Philip Glass to Quincy Jones to Harry Belafonte—back up Simon’s perspective, arguing that Graceland resolves social contradictions and celebrates a “mishpocha”—to use the Yiddish expression, as Belafonte humorously does in the film—into a beautiful musical collaboration that brought attention and put a human face on the South African struggle for liberation.”

“Indeed, it’s hard to argue with the magnanimous spirit of Simon’s South African collaborators, such as the animated, smiling leader of Ladysmith Black Mambazo Joseph Shabalala, who speaks of Simon as a brother and talks fondly of the first time he hugged a white man. The Graceland music itself, which functions as an ever-present, but never overwhelming soundtrack to the documentary, also remains infecting after all these years, and had the audience bopping and clapping during the end credits.”

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