Run time: 108 mins
In Theaters: Sunday 22nd January 2012
Distributed by: IFC Films
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
IMDB: 7.6 / 10
Director: Joe Berlinger
Starring: Paul Simon as Self
In 1985, Simon quietly travelled to South Africa to record tracks for his next album, invited by local musicians. But he and was shocked by racial tension he saw between blacks and whites there, and afterwards was caught off-guard by criticism from anti-Apartheid leaders who said his visit violated the boycott.
Simon argued that he wanted to avoid politics and collaborate with fellow musicians. For them, working with a world-class artist was a chance in a million. And Ladysmith Black Mambazo leader Shabalala says Simon was the first white man he'd ever hugged.
Through interviews with everyone involved, Berlinger captures the magic of the recording sessions, allowing Simon to unpick the songs, where they came from and what they mean. It's hugely engaging, sharply shot and edited, with moments that take the breath away, both in present-day interviews and extensive footage from the recording sessions and subsequent world tour that reveal the lively, loose, collaborative atmosphere.
We also experience Ladysmith Black Mambazo's overwhelming first encounter with freedom and equality when they travelled to Abbey Road studios and then to New York for a milestone appearance on Saturday Night Live. All of this puts Graceland into context: not only was it critically acclaimed, but it also made Apartheid emotional for the first time. These gifted musicians had no rights in their home country. So by working with them, Simon highlighted how the boycott was victimising musicians.
Throughout the film, Berlinger maintains a steely, complex political tone that forcefully explores the links between politics and art. As Simon says, politicians always think artists work for them, because they want to co-opt the love and respect people give to artists. "But artists are speaking a deeper truth," he says. And by taking such a colour-blind, apolitical approach, Simon played an important role in bringing down Apartheid. Intriguingly, and a bit worryingly, this is something the ANC still won't admit. Although Nelson Mandela gets it.