Friday, June 08, 2012

Is There a Glaring Factual Error in 'Under African Skies'?

I was impressed with Under African Skies, the documentary by Joe Berlinger about the making of Paul Simon's seminal 1986 album Graceland. And one of the highlights of the film is watching Simon perform "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on Saturday Night Live back in '86. What I hadn't realized before watching the documentary was that the performance took place in the spring of '86, which was before Graceland came out. As Simon explains in Under African Skies, they had been booked for SNL at that time with the expectation that the album would already be out. But his label decided to push the album's release back at the last minute, so Simon decided to go ahead and perform with the South African choral group anyway, even though nobody in the country had heard Graceland or knew anything about this new sonic direction Simon was pursuing. It makes the SNL performance of "Diamonds" all the more remarkable: As Under African Skies describes it, the jubilant rendition ignited the crowd and suggested just how popular the song (and the album) would be.

The problem is ... that's not entirely factually accurate.

According to SNL's Wikipedia page, that episode (which Robin Williams hosted) took place on November 22, 1986. Graceland came out in August of that year. Double-checking another SNL online resource, SNL Transcripts, it too shows that Simon performed "Diamonds" in the fall of '86.

Now, it is true that Paul Simon performed with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on SNL before Graceland came out, but they didn't play "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes." According to SNL Transcripts, Simon was on the show on May 10, 1986, and he performed "You Can Call Me Al," "Graceland," and (with Ladysmith) "Homeless." (The Wikipedia page on "You Can Call Me Al" provides a little more info on this matter.) Now, it's still rather impressive that Simon performed three Graceland tracks on national television before his album's release -- one that featured a choral group most Americans wouldn't have known -- but it's still a bit dodgy how Under African Skies presents the "Diamonds of the Soles of Her Shoes" performance as part of that earlier appearance, especially when you have Lorne Michaels during the documentary talk about the electricity in the crowd during that May performance. (I wonder if Michaels has seen the final film and noticed the error.)

To make sure my memory wasn't faulty, I checked other Under African Skies reviews and, sure enough, other people had the same impression I did about the "Diamonds" performance. "The film’s happiest moment is its clip of a 'Saturday Night Live' performance of 'Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,' by Mr. Simon with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, that preceded the album’s release," wrote Stephen Holden in The New York Times. (Randy Lewis makes a similar comment about the performance occurring before Graceland's release.)

I'm not accusing the makers of Under African Skies of lying or anything so severe. Maybe it was an honest mistake. But if it was done intentionally, I'll just say that it's the sort of factual fudging that's irritating because, honestly, why did the filmmakers need to do it? I'd love to see -- and I'm assuming other Simon fans would love to see -- Simon's May '86 appearance on Saturday Night Live to witness just how those songs sounded and how they were received by the crowd before anybody knew what Graceland even was. (Doing a quick search around the web, I haven't been able to find any video of the three May 1986 songs.) That's history in the making, and it's unfortunate that Under African Skies decided to substitute that moment with a different one.

(Update: Just realized that Under African Skies is available on Hulu. Start at about 57:00 and you'll see the segment I'm discussing.)