Sundance Review Under African Skies

I grew up with Paul Simon's album Graceland, blaring in my mother's car,  growing a deep crush on Chevy Chase in the "You Can Call Me Al" music video, listening to the title song through long winding roads during a college road trip. So when I went to see Under African Skies, a documentary about the making of the Graceland album, I was all too bummed about the lackluster filmmaking...Joe Berlinger, the director of this film, has made many seminal films in various doc genres such as music (Metallica's Some Kind of Monster) and court justice portraits (the West Memphis Three Series, Crude, and Brother's Keeper) each of these films using the subjects to craft the story/movie into a real cinematic vision ... and I know that these films were probably crafted from hundreds of hours of footage molded into the director's vision of who these characters & subjects are but when it comes to this new film, it just felt like something wasn't clicking in the editing room...

Under African Skies focuses on the apartheid in South Africa that was taking place while Simon was creating his African centric pop music in that country. Ignoring culture embargoes, just living for the music, the film reminisces with Simon and others as they recall the importance of this album, musically and politically. The best part of the film by far was when Simon dissected his creation of the songs, speaking of how the music was a hybrid beyond race and how the need for cultural preservation in South Africa (and even slightly extending to the American South) slowly became inherent in the creation of Graceland.

I guess where this film lost me was that it was not a complete feeling portrait, the characters did not fill the screen in the big way that those in other film's by this director have in the past. There were redeeming moments of stunning archive footage (both the serious side,  the racial conflict in S Africa, and the lighter side, Simon debuting his new type of Africana music on Saturday Night Live to a bewildered, and eventually accepting audience) and random, precise poeticism of Ladysmith Black Mombazo but as a whole I wanted a little bit more. Maybe it is my love of Graceland that made me wish the film had lived up to the same level of artistry but maybe that is too high a standard for anybody...! (And yes, another picture of another mountain! And a video of a live performance by Graceland era Simon!)



Donna K. lives in the Midwest and on the internet. Mostly she writes about her interest in the offline world.