It was last Saturday, up at the Rafael Film Center. And I only caught one movie, that I had missed in San Francisco/Berkeley/Palo Alto. And it was a great one, very glad I didn't miss it.
UNDER AFRICAN SKIES is the story of Paul Simon and the groundbreaking, influential, and controversial recording of the album Graceland. Groundbreaking and influential for its melding of Simon's lyrics and American pop style with African styles by genuine African musicians (heck, his performance on SNL introduced Ladysmith Black Mambazo to the rest of the world.) Controversial, because he recorded it in South Africa, breaking the anti-Apartheid boycott (which included a cultural boycott.) For his part, he figured he was invited by black South African musicians, they worked together and treated each other as equals. Apartheid and racial issues were something obvious outside the studio, but inside they had nothing to do with that (and, of course, he opposed Apartheid.) Plus, he was pretty well opposed to asking any politician--even one he agreed with (like the leaders of the ANC)--for permission to practice his art.
Director Joe Berlinger (who made BLAIR WITCH 2: BOOK OF SHADOWS, but should probably stick to documentaries like this or METALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTER) follows Simon on his 25th anniversary tour of Graceland, reuniting him with the original South African musicians. And it mixes in archival footage from the studio and from the ensuing world tour (everywhere except South Africa, the closest they came was Zimbabwe.) Most interestingly, he meets face to face with Dali Tambo, the founder of Artists Against Apartheid, one of the most vocal supporters of the cultural boycotts and critic of Simon. Although he acknowledges the great artistry of the album, he does say it happened at the wrong time and just wasn't done right. But ultimately they have a very friendly conversation and bury the hatchet. In the end, I don't think anyone could argue that Apartheid lasted one day longer because of Paul Simon and Graceland, and there are some people in the movie who argue that by putting a more beautiful, relatable face on black South Africa he did his part to end it.
Oh, and of course most importantly it's full of great music. Which brings me to my only problem with the movie--that the digital projection got all glitchy at the end. I'm not sure what format they were playing (they did talk about "the disk" and it looked great most of the time, so I'm assuming Blu-Ray?) but the last five minutes were problematic. Normally I wouldn't even mention that, but it was right during the musical performances. Just as the whole audience was grooving to "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" it seized up, and that was really jarring. So as much as I try not to wade into the debate of film vs. digital, here's a case for film. Not that film couldn't jam, or burn, or the soundtrack could screw up. But in my experience that's much rarer than digital glitches. Oh, well.
Anyway, I'll only be at the festival one more day. Monday, at the Piedmont for the last four films. I almost can't believe it's nearly over.
Running Time: 102 minutes
My Total Minutes: 296,256