Monday, April 16, 2012
Dallas International Film Festival review: Under African Skies
Draws in viewers with a combination of compelling interviews and melodic music.
Sometimes the most powerful weapon in a battle isn’t made of iron or steel. It can be something as simple as the human voice. Twenty-five years ago, Paul Simon and a number of South African artists (including the Boyoyo Boys and Ladysmith Black Mambazo) used their voices to raise awareness and show unity in the compilation album, Graceland.
Upon its release, the album was greeted with both accolades and criticism. In the documentary Under African Skies (showing again on April 20 at Angelika Film Center Dallas), award-winning filmmaker Joe Berlinger lets the artists, advocates and protesters share their stories with audiences in this compelling and balanced film about the making of the album and the effects it had on future generations.
In 1986, Paul Simon received a copy of the album Accordion Jive Hits by the Boyoyo Boys, a musical group out of South Africa. He couldn’t stop listening to it and felt compelled to travel to South Africa and meet the band. For many of the local musicians, this was their first encounter with an American musician. Simon discusses the racial tensions during the first recordings, and how it could have impacted his thinking.
The footage spliced into the film from the recording sessions shows how collaborative the album was. The music that was being created was a universal effort that resulted from the blending and melding of cultures, not separating them.
When Simon left the recording session and returned to the states, he wanted to continue working on the album, but did not want to return to the racial tensions in South Africa. Instead, the recordings continued around the globe – in New York and London. Viewers can feel the mutual respect and love between Simon and the members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other recording artists.
The lyrics and melodies featured on Graceland impacted people around the globe and raised awareness of apartheid in South Africa. However, by recording in South Africa and with South African musicians, Simon violated a United Nations boycott. When the album was released, he faced a media backlash and international criticism.
After the album was released, Simon went on a five-year tour. In addition to Ladysmith Black Mambazo and other South African artists, Simon invited trumpeter Hugh Masekela and singer Miriam Makeba, both exiled from South Africa, to join the tour. Each artist accepted and raised awareness in each place they visited.
The political issues surrounding Apartheid and the African National Congress (ANC) ban were not straightforward or simple. Berlinger includes impactful commentary from Harry Belafonte, David Byrne, Paul McCartney, and Quincy Jones. By allowing members from both the parties who enacted the ban and those who ignored it to explain their reasoning, Berlinger elevates the film to a higher level.
Under African Skies draws in viewers with a combination of compelling interviews, melodic music and the insight of many of the people involved in the conflict. Berlinger toggles between past and present footage, enabling viewers to experience the creation of the album and the ripple effects it had since its inception.
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