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‘In Restless Dreams’ May Be the Definitive Paul Simon Documentary


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Mar 19, 2024
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In january 2019, Paul Simon awoke from a dream. Some voice in his head had informed him, deep within his REM cycle, that he was going to work on a project called “Seven Psalms.” The singer-songwriter behind “The Sound of Silence,” “A Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “Love Me Like a Rock,” and several dozen other songs that have likely been part of the soundtrack of your life, willingly or unwillingly, had effectively been retired for several years. Music-wise, he had nothing on deck except for this lovely little riff he’d play on his acoustic guitar around his house in Wimberly, Texas. He had no idea what the phrase meant, or why he should be working on anything.

Still, in the middle of the night, he got up and wrote down “Seven Psalms” on a piece of paper. And gradually, bits of what he called “information” would come to him. Lyrical fragments. Melodies. The use of odd sounds, ranging from cloud-chamber bowls to a glockenspiel. A notion that spirituality, creativity and human history, as well as mortality, were somehow intertwined. Simon invited an engineer and old friends like Wynton Marsalis down to his home studio in Wimberly to help him turn a cryptic string of words into what would become his 15th solo album. Then he invited documentarian Alex Gibney to come down and chronicle the making of what may or may not be his final record.

If In Restless Dreams was nothing but the making of that haunting, moving collection from one of our greatest living songwriters — a sort of deluxe-set extra writ large — it would still be a compelling look at an artist approaching a late work, wrestling with themes and preoccupations that he’s poked at for most of his career. Instead, we get a two-part docuseries that weaves in that career’s highs and lows as well, refracting Seven Psalms through almost seven decades of musicmaking. It’s a trip down a long, winding road with the only living boy in New York, that starts in Queens, detours through Jamaica, Hollywood, South Africa and Brazil, and slowly winds you back to a modest cabin in the center of the Lone Star state. What’s that quote about the journey being more important than the destination?

A prolific filmmaker who’s dabbled in everything from first-person docs to Dateline-style exposés, social-issue cinejournlism to portraits of artists (Sinatra, Hunter S. Thompson, James Brown), Alex Gibney is nothing if not an old pro at this kind of thing. He doesn’t have a style so much as modes, and thankfully, he’s stuck to a more straight-ahead profiler role here; the chronology may ping back and forth, but the focus remains steadfastly on the subject. Subtitled “The Music of Paul Simon,” In Restless Dreams also keeps its eyes on the output, threading in personal stuff primarily when it pertains to what was going on with Simon’s writing and recording. Does that mean we view, say, his whirlwind marriage to Carrie Fisher primarily through his recording of 1983’s Hearts and Bones? Yes. Is there still ample opportunity to hear Simon talk shit about Art Garfunkel (and vice versa) over many years’ worth of vintage clips, interviews and televised bickering? Oh yes, indeed.

The initial episode, which premiered on March 17th on MGM+ and is titled “Verse 1,” covers everything up to his eventual split with Garfunkel. (“Verse 2,” the second episode, airs on March 24th.) The childhood friendship, the early Tom & Jerry single, the rebranding as Simon and Garfunkel after signing with Columbia, their false start of a first album, Tom Wilson’s let’s-go-electric revision of “The Sound of Silence” that shot up the charts, The Graduate — it’s all here, complete with demo recordings, cover-shoot contact sheets, faded snippets of in-studio news reports.

Even if you know the story already, Restless fills in the periphery with anecdotes and excavated footage, as well as bumping up the emphasis on certain bits. Simon’s relocation to London is usually treated as little more than a timeline speedbump in between Wednesday Morning, 3 a.m. stalling out and “Silence” 2.0 kicking off Simon & Garfunkel’s Golden Age. The doc elevates its status from footnote to gamechanger, reframing his time abroad as key to both personal growth and a creative level-up. Should you think that the duo seemed politically and culturally out of step after they headlined the hippie ground zero that was Monterey Pop, you’re reminded that they did Songs of America, a 1969 special for CBS (directed by Charles Grodin!) that blended their music with pointed commentary and newsreel clips. America’s 200th birthday is coming up, Garfunkel muses at one point. “Think it’s gonna make it?” replies Simon.


Simon & Garfunkel, in a scene from ‘In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon.’ DOUGLAS R. GILBERT

It ends with Bridge Over Troubled Waters, bitterness and a break-up, as Artie goes off to make movies and Simon is left doing “nothing” but writing and partially arranging one of the most popular albums of the 1970s. When Part 2 picks up, Simon is poised to start a career on his own. Columbia head Clive Davis is the devil on Simon’s shoulder, saying that he’s making a huge mistake by dissolving the label’s best-selling act. As for the angel whispering in his ear, that’s Simon’s first wife, Peggy Harper — she’s the one the reminds him that he writes the songs, so why should he be worried? What follows is history proving Harper right several times over. Also: SNL, One Trick Pony, a massively successful reunion, a not-so-successful attempt at a reunion tour and album, numerous flirtations with world music, meeting Edie Brickell and éminence grise status. The only constant is reinvention. That, and a love of harmonies.

There are treasures abound regardless of whether you’re a die-hard Paul Simon fan in Restless, though it helps if you’re willing to argue about the merits of downtown disco-jive like “Ace in the Hole” or whether the wounded lyrics of “Allergies” makes up for the song’s kitchen-sink musical mishmash. What’s interesting about this doc’s sideways look at Simon’s career, as well as the focus on the music over the madness happening around him, is the way it makes a case for failure being something that inspires opportunities for renewal even more than success. You don’t get the Central Park reunion concert without One Trick Pony failing to find an audience; if Hearts and Bones hadn’t been seen as a misstep, Simon may not have had the freedom to be left alone and follow his muse to South Africa, which gave the world Graceland. As to whether that era-defining album is cultural appropriation — a subject also picked over in Joe Berlinger’s Under African Skies — the doc supplies extended sections of a 1987 concert in Zimbabwe that features Simon playing with a host of different African musicians and regularly ceding the spotlight. He wanted people to know where this music was coming from and who was making it before his diamond-soled shoes stepped on the continent’s shores.

“Verse 2” stops in 1992, right after Simon drops The Rhythm of the Saints — it doesn’t skip past the six albums or the controversial Broadway production of The Capeman that separate that early ’90s triumph with Seven Psalms so much as ignore their existence entirely. Such conspicuous back-half omissions keep In Restless Dreams from merely being damn near the definitive Paul Simon documentary as opposed to the definitive one. Then again, Gibney isn’t trying to be comprehensive. It pays to remember that this project starts with Simon chasing a literal dream while battling injury (he lost his hearing in one ear near the start of recording, which has caused his singing style to change drastically), age and time. There’s a life’s worth of philosophical pursuit and artistry that went into finishing that album. The fact that we get to seeing it being made through the filter of that life, and how it’s brought him to this moment, only makes it that much more awe-inspiring.

From Rolling Stone US.

The post ‘In Restless Dreams’ May Be the Definitive Paul Simon Documentary appeared first on Rolling Stone India.
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