Saturday, April 20, 2024

Review: Oscar Winner Alex Gibney’s Stunning Three and a Half Hour Paul Simon Doc is a Master Class, Masterwork, Masterpiece


Academy Award winner Alex Gibney’s three and a half hour documentary about Paul Simon played tonight at the Hamptons Film Festival in its full glory.

Masterpiece, masterwork, masterclass are words to describe “In Restless Dreams” (a phrase from “The Sound of Silence.”)  Even at that length Gibney could not cover the “entire” Paul Simon, and really, this monumental undetaking should be a miniseries.

Nevertheless the very packed audience at HIFF had no problem watching this epic saga that tackles the musical genius of Simon from A to Z. There’s a lot to digest, or unpack — as they say now — but every bit of it brings Simon into sharp focus after 60 years of being in the spotlight.

Whether Gibney set out to or not, he divides Simon’s life into two major sections — his soaring career and relationship with childhood friend Art Garfunkel and every remarkable thing that happened after including albums like Grammy winners “Still Crazy After All These Years” and “Graceland.”

The relationship with Garfunkel is enlivened by rare archival footage of these young hip guys from the 60s whose five years together registered a deep emotional place in pop culture. From “The Sound of Silence” to “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” their success was right up there with the Beatles, Dylan, and the Stones. Later Simon would go toe to toe with Stevie Wonder in the 70s as the pop poet laureates of the US.

Gibney has to wrestle a lot of information to the ground and does so with tremendous skill. Even when Simon & Garfunkel part in 1970, they are not over. Gibney skips their first reunion in 1976, but picks up with the 1981 Concert in Central Park, the subsequent tours in the 80s, and the torturous deterioration of their unending association. Childhood friends who experienced an unusual collaboration and then had to move on, they are like Martin and Lewis, Lennon and McCartney, Sonny and Cher. You rarely think of one without the other, and they are keenly aware of it.

Throughout the film, we see Simon, now 80, living with singer wife Edie Brickell improbably in Texas (you can’t imagine this kid from Queens even goes outside) after decades in Manhattan, Connecticut, and Montauk. But he has a recording studio there where he’s showing making his recent “Seven Psalms.” Prominent in that story is Simon’s recent hearing loss in his left ear, which at first depressed and then challenged him to overcome it. He observes, “It took Beethoven ten years to get used to it.”

Gibney’s film skirts Simon’s personal life, although we get a little bit about his first marriage, his short marriage to Carrie Fisher, how he and Brickell met, and a sense that “SNL” creator Lorne Michaels is very close friend. His eldest son, Harper, is seen only as a child, and the kids with Brickell aren’t mentioned.

The bulk of the second part of “In Restless Dreams” has to do with the making of “Graceland,” (1986) and its follow up “Rhythm of the Saints” (1990). There were complaints then about cultural appropriation, and criticism of Simon for working with South African musicians during apartheid. But the music has held up, the musicians from all countries in Africa and South America defend Simon, and the clips of the performances underscore that he opened the door to world music to Americans who had never heard it.

My favorite moment in the film is Simon singing one of his best songs, “American Tune,” in full. Gibney was smart not to cut it. There’s also a section in which Simon shows Dick Cavett — back around 1970 — how he wrote “Mrs. Robinson.” It reminded me of the Beatles’ “Get Back” doc when McCartney composes “Let it Be” on the spot. Disarming doesn’t begin to describe how these things could happen to mere mortals in public with people watching. You know their gift is beyond us, and everything else is just quibbling. (Missed opportunities include not showing Simon dressed as a turkey on “SNL” and not including the Grammy speech where he thanked Stevie Wonder for not making an album that year.)

PS There was applause several times for various performances including Aretha Franklin’s live version of “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.

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