PARK CITY, Utah – Paul Simon recalls his return to South Africa like a family reunion — musical brothers getting back together after decades apart.
The trip last summer to commemorate the 25th anniversary of his “Graceland” album was a far more joyous occasion than some of his earlier travels on behalf of the record.
The Sundance Film Festival documentary “Under African Skies” chronicles the creation of “Graceland,” its overnight success and the furor it caused as critics accused Simon of impeding progress to abolish South Africa’s system of racial segregation known as apartheid.
Simon said he was surprised by protests that sprang up on his “Graceland” tour in the 1980s. But looking back, he said the album and tour with South African musicians raised awareness that helped end apartheid in the 1990s.
“Once I saw it had an immediate acceptance and that people loved it and had great affection for the music, I thought that the tour and the album were going to be a very effective way of showing just how evil apartheid was,” Simon said in an interview alongside “Under African Skies” director Joe Berlinger.
The film shows Simon’s South African musical colleagues enjoying their first taste of success outside their oppressed nation on the “Graceland” tour. But critics charged that the tour violated a United Nations cultural ban meant to pressure South Africa’s white minority into doing away with government policies of segregation against blacks.
There were protests and even bomb threats, resulting in tight security as the tour progressed around the world.
Even today, there is lingering bitterness against Simon. “Under African Skies” includes a sometimes-uneasy exchange last summer between him and Dali Tambo, the son of African National Congress leader Oliver Tambo and the founder of Artists Against Apartheid. Dali Tambo had remained a harsh critic of Simon.
The joint interview arranged by filmmaker Berlinger helped clear the air between Simon and Tambo, who ended their meeting with a warm hug on camera.
That meeting was part of Berlinger’s aim to examine both the musical origins of “Graceland” but also its unpleasant political fallout.
“I made it clear I didn’t want a puff piece, a Paul Simon puff piece, and he didn’t want a Paul Simon puff piece,” Berlinger said. “We established that we’re going to do an honest exploration of these issues and also go deeply into how this music was made, which, to me, is actually the more interesting part of the film.
“The political story is relevant and has resonance in today’s world as well, but how this album was made, the dissection of that music and that achievement to me was as interesting, or more so, than the political story.”
The film traces the creation of the album, from early recording sessions Simon did in South Africa to capture the raw material for many of the songs, to a London studio session with vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo, to an early performance on “Saturday Night Live” that enchanted the audience months before “Graceland” was released.
“Under African Skies” also follows Simon on his return to South Africa last summer, when he and musicians from the album reunited for a performance.
Simon had a gracious welcome there, reminiscent of a trip back to South Africa he took a few years after the “Graceland” tour, when apartheid had ended and South Africa’s new president, Nelson Mandela, invited him to come and perform.
Mandela’s invitation amounted to the “official announcement that was nothing about ‘Graceland’ that the ANC saw as harming the cause. In fact, the opposite,” Simon said. “We all felt particularly honoured to even meet Nelson Mandela. I think of him as one of the great, great leaders of the 20th century. One of the great teachers. To be in his presence actually was extraordinary. We felt great about it.”