When it was released in the fall of 1986, Paul Simon’s
“Graceland” album served at least two different purposes:
First, it revitalized Simon’s career at a time when he was
experiencing some personal difficulties, and his musical
creativity had somewhat stalled. Second and more
significantly, it awakened people around the world to the rich
heritage of South African music. How this happened was
discussed in this particular installment of the “Classic Albums”
series, released by Eagle Rock Entertainment. This particular
documentary dates from 1997, with Paul Simon and his
engineer, Roy Halee, chronicling the laborious but ultimately
triumphant sojourn of producing this album.
Paul Simon stated that in a sense, it was like going back to
school for him, largely due to the subtle, rhythmic shifts and
time signatures inherent in the music. These were a far cry
from the comparatively four-square rhythms of the Folk-Rock
that he had become accustomed to playing. Basically, what
he did with “Graceland” was jam with well-known South
African musicians in their studio (Ovation Studios in Johannesburg).
These musicians joined him and continued the process in
New York and London, where the tracks were patched and
edited. A number of the South African musicians were
interviewed for this film, and they sometimes illustrated
key musical parts on their respective instruments.
I was surprised to see that composer Philip Glass was
interviewed in this documentary. Apparently, he is a friend
of Paul Simon’s, and is obviously a big fan of this music.
Linda Ronstadt was a singer on the “Graceland” album, and
was also interviewed.
These interviews were interspersed with footage from
“The African Concert,” given with many of the musicians
featured on the album. This concert has also been issued
as a separate DVD, making it a good companion piece to
this “Classic Albums” disc. In January of this year, we
posted a discussion of “The African Concert” DVD on this
blog. The “Graceland” disc also features numerous video
clips of Paul Simon and some of the musicians (including in
one instance, Linda Ronstadt) performing on “Saturday Night Live.”
“Graceland” would eventually sell 14 million copies. It was not
intended as a political statement per se, but nonetheless drew
attention to the fact that this beautiful and joyous outpouring
of music was occurring during the time of Apartheid. It occurred
to me that by making this project happen in the mid 1980’s,
Paul Simon did for the South African people what British bands,
like The Rolling Stones, did for the American people during the mid
1960’s: He brought a rejuvenated version of their own indigenous
music back to them. I say this because in the film, it was
mentioned by a South African that as a rule, the people of
South Africa didn’t really listen to their native music. “Graceland”
and the related concerts served as a sort of reminder of just how
special this music could be.
This particular “Classic Albums” documentary was a seamless 75
minutes, without a separation between the main 48-minute film
and the bonus features. A printed discography of Paul Simon’s
solo career as of 2000 was provided as an extra. This 2005 DVD
release is highly recommended.