Going Back to Graceland (Documentary Review: “Under African Skies”)

underafricanskiesPOSTERAn exhilarating look back at the global musical sensation that both bridged and stirred racial and political divides, putting South Africa’s apartheid revolution squarely on the map for all the world to see.


SnapShot Plot 

Under African Skies celebrates the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon’s Graceland album and the controversial worldwide concert tour the album generated. In 2011, Simon and a film crew returned to South Africa to launch a reunion concert with the original South African artists and musicians who contributed to the original project, including, among others, Ladysmith Black Mambazo,  Hugh Masakela, and Miriam Makeba (known as Mama Africa and herself a political exile for 27 years).

In the mid-80’s, the world was just beginning to comprehend the degree of abject persecution and intolerance that Blacks in South Africa were suffering under apartheid. Resulting from the tumultuous uprisings in places such as Johannesburg and Soweto, a resistance party was formed, called the African National Congress (ANC) who, together with the United Nations and another group called Artists Against Apartheid, created a worldwide cultural boycott against South Africa for its racist regime. The boycott went both ways, in effect, banning South African artists from collaborating with outsiders or touring professionally in other countries. That is, until Paul Simon fell in love with South African music and traveled there in 1985 to see and hear what it was all about. He wasn’t completely unaware of the UN cultural boycott, though, and consulted his good friend (and longtime political activist) Harry Belafonte for guidance as to how to proceed. He didn’t quite take his advice, and the rest is history.



“In Graceland you can hear the whole phenomena of American music being rejoined with its African roots.”  David Byrne, Talking Heads

Parting Shot

Among the many wonderful aspects of Under African Skies: the behind-the-scenes glimpses into the productions then and now; studio sessions in South Africa, NYC and London; interviews with the musicians themselves (in the 80’s and today) as well as contemporary luminaries that include Quincy Jones, David Byrne, Philip Glass and even Paul McCartney. It’s a concert film as well as a sociological and political history lesson.

Academy Award nominated and Emmy winning filmmaker, Joe Berlinger made Under African Skies an insightful film that has faithfully presented the provocative landscape of what the Graceland project meant politically at the time, as well as how it’s been re-evaluated 25 years later, with no easy answers or interpretations in tow. It’s that prickly intersection of Art and Politics that made Graceland so challenging a thing to embrace at the time, although the world unabashedly fell in love with the stirring and resonant music and voices at the heart of the album. This film, though, pulls no punches in shining an honest light on the ethical and aesthetic forces at work both then and now.

In the end, of course, it’s all about the Music. And as Ladysmith Black Mambazo himself says, “Music is something like Prayer.”


Under African Skies is presently streaming on a totally free site called SnagFilms.com.

Norma’s Streaming Picks is proud to announce squatters’ rights on a fantastic site for Baby Boomers, Midcentury/Modern as well as right here at home. I invite you to go there for more great content!

YouTube Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jw6eTs8mw70&list=RDjw6eTs8mw70

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