Paul Simon released Graceland in 1986 to a mixture of critical acclaim, commercial popularity, and controversy. It’s not hard to understand the first two. The 11 cuts are buoyed by tuneful hooks, thoughtful lyrics, and the distinct contributions of numerous South African musicians with whom Simon collaborated. Twenty-five years after its release, it’s the controversy that might be lost on anyone too young to remember the apartheid regime in South Africa. Back in those days, a strict worldwide cultural boycott was in effect, in protest of the South African government. Among the various leaders of the anti-apartheid movement there was great disagreement over Simon’s naïve breaking of that boycott.
What matters most in retrospect is the unique music they created, an enduring combination of Western pop and idiosyncratic South African styles. As explained in the extensive liner notes, Simon went to work with these musicians without having composed any actual songs. The music, therefore, developed out of jams and existing compositions that had already caught Simon’s ear before he ventured there. Without a game plan in effect, Simon then returned to the States and wrote the words around the co-written music. There’s much more to the story, but that’s what so outstanding about this special reissue. Between the liner notes, a nine minute audio track of Simon remembering the sessions, and the DVD Under African Skies, the complete story is told in astounding detail.
Graceland swept the world, becoming a multi-platinum phenomenon that struck a chord with seemingly all who heard it. “You Can Call Me Al,” the infectiously catchy hit, was all over MTV thanks to a hilarious clip featuring Chevy Chase (included on the DVD). The title tune, benefitting from a vocal assist by The Everly Brothers, tells the story of a pilgrimage to Elvis Presley’s home, but Simon’s lyrics have grander philosophical ambitions. The South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo brings an ethereal beauty to the a capella “Homeless.” They also grace the better known “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes” (a knockout performance of the song from Saturday Night Live is on the DVD). From start to finish, the album is a work of thoughtful, multi-layered brilliance that helped spark an explosion in the popularity of world music.
In addition to the aforementioned “Story of Graceland” bonus track, this edition includes previously released alternate versions of three songs, plus previously unreleased demos for “You Can Call Me Al” and “Crazy Love.” Those bonuses are nice to have, but the real gem here is Under African Skies. This is a feature-length documentary directed by Joe Berlinger that runs an hour and 40 minutes. It’s utterly compelling, tracing the origins, recording, and reception of Graceland, cross-cutting with Simon’s recent reunion with the original musicians who contributed to the album. Every aspect is covered, without shying away from the controversies. Dali Tambo, co-founder of Artists Against Apartheid, is still insistent that Simon was in the wrong by violating the cultural boycott. He and Simon respectfully debate each other in a recent discussion, both making their case in an intelligent, impassioned manner.
Throughout the film, several of Simon’s contemporaries weigh in with their opinion of Graceland. Among them are David Byrne, Peter Gabriel, and Paul McCartney. We see vintage footage of Simon recording in South Africa, as well as new clips of him rehearsing for their reunion concert. I don’t think I’ve seen a more comprehensive—or more emotionally involving—documentary focused on the creation of a single album. Definitely a must-see, not only for Paul Simon fans, but for fans of popular music in general. In addition to the documentary, there are extended interview segments with five of the film’s participants. Four music videos are thrown in for good measure, bringing the DVD’s running time to a generous two hours and 23 minutes.
The two-disc 25th anniversary edition of Graceland is a less expensive alternative to very expensive, lushly produced box set also available from Sony Legacy. If you don’t have a hundred bucks handy, or if you’re maybe brand new to Graceland, you really can’t lose with this very reasonably priced two-disc version.