The first thing to say about Alex Gibney’s “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon” is that it’s three-and-a-half hours long. Normally I wouldn’t lead with that daunting fact, especially since the film is mostly marvelous: a documentary that every Paul Simon fan on earth should want to see and experience. But will they?
I raise the issue only because “In Restless Dreams” has come into the Toronto Film Festival without a distributor, and let’s just be honest: The 209-minute running time, when you hear about it, doesn’t exactly sound…user-friendly. Gibney, of course, is one of the renaissance masters of contemporary documentary, a filmmaker of staggering skill and eclecticism (he has made powerful films about Scientology, the opioids crisis, Julian Assange, Enron, American torture policy, and Hunter S. Thompson). On occasion, he sprinkles in a music doc, which is clearly a labor of love for him. If you’ve never seen “Mr. Dynamite: The Rise of James Brown,” it’s sensational. And Gibney’s 2015 film “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All” is one of the most sublime music documentaries I’ve ever seen. That film is four hours long, but it was made for HBO and designed to be shown in two parts, so the length was never an issue.
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“In Restless Dreams,” by contrast, sprawls profusely over Paul Simon’s music and career, essentially dividing itself into two sections, which Gibney labels “verses.” You could call the sections “Simon and Garfunkel” (the first hour), “Simon in the ’70s” (when he launched his extraordinary solo career and engaged in a kind of ongoing interface with “Saturday Night Live”), and “‘Graceland’ and beyond” (the movie devotes a lot of time to “Graceland” — maybe a bit too much). Woven throughout “In Restless Dreams” are passages shot in Simon’s small bucolic recording studio in a shack just outside his Texas country home, where we see him talk about his past, work on the recording of his 15th solo album, “Seven Psalms” (which was released four months ago), say things like “Guitarists spend half their life tuning their guitar and the other half playing out of tune,” and collaborate with his good friend Wynton Marsalis.
How should “In Restless Dreams” be consumed? It works as a grand theatrical experience (I saw it in IMAX, where the 1981 Simon and Garfunkel Concert in Central Park looms up like a real concert), but practically speaking I would say: A streamer like Apple should pick up the film and possibly present it in three parts, as a kind of mini-series. It would work nicely in that form, because the movie, in its leisurely nostalgic epic way, is completely addictive.
It overflows with stunning archival footage, letting us take a deep dive into what it was like to be Paul Simon, a short chipmunk-cute Jewish kid from Queens (born in 1941) who met Art Garfunkel in school, when the two of them were 10, and they started fusing their voices and imitating the doo-wop and rockabilly records they had to ride on the bus for an hour to buy at a record store in Jamaica, Queens. When Simon scratched his newly purchased disc of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love,” he rode the bus for another hour to get another copy. (He was also obsessed with following the weekly Billboard chart: the way the songs would move up and down.) We see a clip of Dick Cavett, from 1970, asking Simon if he grew up poor, which he didn’t, but Simon used his music — much as Bruce Springsteen did — to create a certain impression of himself as an American steeped in lowly class hunger and nobility.
The film takes us through the counterculture (the clubs, the tumult, the black-and-white pre-media innocence, “The Graduate”) so that we feel we’re seeing it anew. It shows us how Simon, without Garfunkel, sustained his songwriting genius through the decades that came after, and how his celebrity only grew. And though the film is subtitled “The Music of Paul Simon,” there are tasty personal anecdotes throughout — about the tangled acrimony that developed between Paul and Art and never went away, about Paul’s marriages to Carrie Fisher and Edie Brickell (who first encountered him standing next to the camera watching her as Edie Brickell and New Bohemians made their initial appearance on “SNL”), about the innovative evolution of “Graceland” and the controversy that album inspired.
Simon is 81 now, and his age hovers over the film: the mellow singing voice with a few cracks in it, the fact that he recently lost nearly all the hearing in his left ear (an experience he says left him depressed, until he came to the philosophical realization that it was a trial he was meant to go through), and the sturdy but quieter vibe he now gives off. For someone who recalls being “appalled,” when he was younger, at how “neurotic” some of his songs were (he’s referencing that anthem of solitude “I Am a Rock”), Paul Simon has always had a preternatural calm about him. You really see it in his talk-show appearances, where he’s cool as a cucumber facing off against Cavett or David Letterman. That’s his karma. But there are roiling undercurrents, sometimes angry ones.
The reign of Simon and Garfunkel is an extraordinary saga that the film captures in all its 1960s romanticism. They were supposed to be the next big thing, but their first album, “Wednesday Morning, 3:00 A.M.” (which had “The Sound of Silence” on it), was a flop. Simon went off by himself to London and started playing in folk clubs there. He even made a solo record (“The Paul Simon Songbook”); as far as he was concerned, Simon and Garfunkel were probably history. But Tom Wilson, the visionary producer at Columbia Records, remixed “The Sound of Silence” using some of the same musicians who had helped Dylan go electric. Paul, a practical musician who knew how the business worked, didn’t mind; he said go for it. We hear that version — the famous one — 45 minutes into the film, and it gives you chills. The sound of it. It’s the sound of sheer clashing beauty in a godless world.
The albums kept coming, and the music Simon wrote for “The Graduate” fused with that movie the way the Bee Gees’ songs would fuse with “Saturday Night Fever.” It’s almost as if Dustin Hoffman, the first short urban ethnic Jewish movie star, became a kind of mirror of Simon. The songs weren’t just a soundtrack — they expressed what was going on inside Ben, even as “Mrs. Robinson” was a ditty that Paul made up on the spot.
The breakup of Simon and Garfunkel was as mysterious and complicated as the breakup of the Beatles; both groups were marriages. Yet in a basic sense, you could say that Paul Simon broke up Simon and Garfunkel because he couldn’t stand the idea that Art was off making movies (Simon’s profound resentment of this began during the shooting of “Catch-22,” the film in which Mike Nichols, the director of “The Graduate,” launched Garfunkel’s career as a Hollywood actor), which meant that he wasn’t around to offer his reaction to Simon’s new songs. Simon also hated it when live audiences would swoon over Art’s angelic crooning of “Bridge Over Trouble Water,” forgetting that it was Paul who wrote the song, damn it! The two got lost in their bickering, but could have continued; when Clive Davis told Simon that by ditching the duo he was making “the biggest mistake of your life,” what he meant was: You two aren’t finished yet — you still have fantastic albums in you.
But Simon’s creative energy, when he got out on his own, proved a bottomless well. In the studio today, as we see him compose “Seven Psalms,” he keeps returning to one refrain — an ornate guitar riff, which is beautiful, though it also sounds familiar, because it’s a tranquil variation on the chords that open the 1973 track “Learn How to Fall.” With Simon, though, it’s less recycling than alchemy.
His solo records were magnificent, and Gibney makes a smart choice in sticking to the crème de la crème of them. (A small peeve: I wish he’d made a more pointed mention of “There Goes Ryhmin’ Simon,” the great album with “American Tune” and “Kodachrome” on it.) The most fascinating aspect of the ’70s section is that it captures how Simon, through his repeated appearances on “SNL” (his friend Lorne Michaels is interviewed extensively in the film), entered his sexy phase and became an offbeat midnight matinee idol. He was always sensitive about losing his hair, and by this point sported a rather complicated comb-over, but somehow, with the thinning locks grown longish, and a mustache, and his face now leaner and meaner, with the hardened experience of a veteran star behind him, he became more than a little bit cool. That’s the quality Woody Allen tapped when he cast him as Tony Lacy in “Annie Hall.”
Simon, like Art, tried to be a movie star too, even going so far as to direct and star in his own movie, “One Trick Pony” (1980), where he played a middle-of-the-road musician in what amounted to an act of convoluted modesty. The film flopped, which hurt Simon; he did not take failure easily. But he kept getting back on the horse, and it’s striking how many of his triumphs were re-inventions.
That’s certainly true of “Graceland,” the album in which he collaborated with South African musicians to come up with a majestic and propulsive hybrid sound. He received a lot of criticism for breaking the entertainment-industry boycott of South Africa. But as Simon points out, the intent of the boycott was to hurt South African’s racist white regime; in a sense, it was all about the regime. Simon — and he was alone in this — ducked beneath the regime to actually connect with the Black South Africans the boycott was trying to help. I would argue that “Graceland,” far from abetting the regime, had a marked influence in the struggle against apartheid. And, of course, it’s a timeless album, though Gibney devotes so much time to it, especially when documenting a stadium-concert performance of it in Zimbabwe, that this is the one part of the documentary that could have used more of the cross-cutting spirit that animates the rest of film.
“In Restless Dreams” is not a perfect movie, yet it takes us on a journey in the deepest and most transporting sense. When it’s over, and you’ve come out the other side of the six decades of Paul Simon’s career, you feel the full moving continuity of his art: that what unites his songs is the way the music all seems to speak directly to you. Over and over, even after he’d been counted out, he made sounds that filled the silence.
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