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'Restless Dreams' documentary retraces Paul Simon's past, and captures his present


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. This Sunday and next, MGM+ has a new two-part documentary directed by Alex Gibney, whose credits include "Going Clear: Scientology And The Prison of Belief." It's called "In Restless Dreams: The Music Of Paul Simon," and looks back at Simon's lengthy career while also capturing his process of recording his latest album. Paul Simon already has been given the career-spanning biographical documentary treatment, and it was a great one - Susan Lacy's "Paul Simon: Born At The Right Time" for the PBS series "American Masters." But that was more than 30 years ago, and even though Gibney covers much of the same territory, he does it from a different perspective, with lots of formerly unseen footage and with a slightly different mission.

In his film, Gibney wants to tell the story from the inside out, revealing how Paul Simon feels about everything from Simon & Garfunkel to the controversy sparked by his "Graceland" solo album. And Gibney also wants to know, as much as possible, what it feels like for Simon to perform his songs and to compose and record them. So at the same time Gibney is retracing Simon's past, he's also capturing his present, filming and listening as Simon works on his 2023 album, "Seven Psalms." At the outset, Simon reveals to Gibney the original inspiration for the new project.


PAUL SIMON: On January 15, 2019, I had a dream that said, you're working on a piece called "Seven Psalms." And I hadn't been writing anything for a couple of years, nor did I feel like writing anything for a couple of years. The dream was so strong that I got up and I wrote it down, "Seven Psalms," January 15, 2019. But I had no idea what that meant.

BIANCULLI: In these parts of the film, Gibney shows how Simon works to record the sounds he hears in his head, while at the same time struggling to hear it all because of a sudden serious auditory loss in one ear. It's quite a contrast when juxtaposed, as Gibney does, with the easy start of Simon's musical career. He and his childhood friend, Art Garfunkel, recorded, under the name of Tom & Jerry, a song that got radio airplay and eventually got them on the TV show "American Bandstand" as teenagers.


SIMON: At that time, I worked in a shoe store, but after we went on "American Bandstand," I came in, and the boss, who I couldn't stand, said, you're late. And I said, no, no, I quit.


SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) But out of here real fast.

BIANCULLI: When the duo signed to Columbia Records under their real names, Simon & Garfunkel, their first album stiffed until their engineer at the time, Tom Wilson, added drums and electric guitar to their acoustic version of "Sound Of Silence," rereleased it as a single and turned it into a No. 1 hit. And it was another engineer, Roy Halee, whom Simon credits with coming up with the group's distinctive vocal sound by multitracking, which Gibney uses surviving audio tracks to demonstrate.


SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) 'Cilia, you're breaking my heart.

SIMON: The vocal sound of Simon & Garfunkel - Roy invented that, you know?

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) Oh, Cecilia, I'm down on my knees.

SIMON: We'd both sing into one microphone. Close enough to each other that we could really blend.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Let's take a note. Play me a little of it back, and I'll take the tempo again.

SIMON: He'd capture that blend a couple of times...

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) You're shaking my confidence daily. Oh, Cecilia, I'm down on my knees.

SIMON: ...To have multiple tracks that he'd combine in the mix.

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) I'm begging you please to come home. Oh, 'Cilia, you're breaking my heart. You're shaking my confidence daily.

SIMON: As soon as you heard that, it was like, there it is.

BIANCULLI: Perhaps not surprisingly, given the history and acrimony of Simon & Garfunkel, Art Garfunkel is not interviewed specifically for "In Restless Dreams," but "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels is, and so is Simon's current wife, singer Edie Brickell, and Wynton Marsalis, whose friendship with Simon, he explains in a litany that sounds like rapid-fire, rhythmic poetry. And what's so wonderful about that is Marsalis only says it because Gibney asks him a two-word follow-up question - two words, but they strike gold.


WYNTON MARSALIS: We had so much to talk about.

ALEX GIBNEY: Like what?

MARSALIS: Man, like being divorced, having children, not being married, race relations in the United States, New Orleans and New York, Elvis Presley and rock 'n' roll, white and Black folks, politics, Ayahuasca, South American music, integrating with other cultures and their music, being left-handed, being at your father's rehearsal that you don't want to be at, how to pay respect to a generation before you, the direction our country is going to go in, what level of participation should artists have with political issues? What is it like to travel? What do you learn from musicians in other cultures? What does it take to write a song? What do you think about baroque music? What is Bach's position versus Beethoven's position in European music? How much music Duke Ellington wrote in 1962? What was it like when Goodman got killed in Mississippi? Afro American music and Anglo Celtic music - where do they meet? It goes on and on, man, and not all agreement. That's what makes it so good.

BIANCULLI: Through these new interviews and vintage ones from "The Dick Cavett Show" and elsewhere, "In Restless Dreams" reveals Simon's opinions about standing on stage while Art got all the applause for performing Simon's composition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and about their various reunion concerts. The second part of the documentary covers Simon's solo years, the highlights of which are the recording sessions and concerts revolving around the albums "Graceland" and "The Rhythm Of The Saints." The only things I wish he could have found room for were Simon's astounding performance with Ladysmith Black Mambazo on "Saturday Night Live" and more of "The Paul Simon Special" from the '70s, with Charles Grodin irritatingly pushing for Simon & Garfunkel to reunite. But what is in Gibney's documentary is absolutely beautiful and unexpectedly thought-provoking.


SIMON: (Singing) I've been thinking about the great migration. Noon and night, they leave the flock, and I imagine their destination, meadow grass, jagged rock.

BIANCULLI: To keep up with what's on the show and get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair. On Monday's show, NPR political correspondent Sarah McCammon talks about growing up in and leaving the white evangelical church. Her new book, The Exvangelicals," is part memoir, part reporting. It's also about the influence evangelical Christians have on the political right. McCammon covered the 2016 Trump campaign for NPR. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross and Tonya Mosley, I'm David Bianculli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.