At first, the title of Alex Gibney’s “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon” seems as if it could be a warning about the director’s approach in this supersized documentary. The film, its title seems to be saying, is about the music of Simon, not the life or the loves or the times of Simon. But it turns out that the music is a gateway to all those other things in this three-and-a-half hour film that covers most of what you’d want to know about the seminal singer-songwriter.
Partly, that’s because Gibney’s jumping off point is Simon’s new album, “Seven Psalms,” an uncommonly personal and soul-searching work for the man who’s been writing songs for seven decades. A half-hour meditation on faith and mortality that came to Simon in a dream and was written during a time when he’d begun to lose his hearing in one ear, it’s an album that invites exploration, not just of Paul Simon the musician, but Paul Simon the man.
And that’s what Gibney gives us in “In Restless Dreams,” the first film about an entertainer that the Oscar-winning director has made since his two-part Frank Sinatra miniseries “Sinatra: All or Nothing at All” in 2015. The film premiered on Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“In Restless Dreams,” which draws its title from a line from Simon’s breakthrough hit “The Sounds of Silence,” is focused on the hits – the success of Simon’s work with his childhood friend Art Garfunkel, including “Mrs. Robinson” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water”; the Grammys for solo albums like “Still Crazy After All These Years”; the revitalization of his career with the “Graceland” album and tour – but it doesn’t ignore the misses, at least for the first half of his career. (The second half, admittedly less impactful, is almost entirely skipped until it gets to the new album.)
The through-line, and the way into Simon’s story, is the recording of “Seven Psalms” in a studio on the property owned by Simon and his wife, singer Edie Brickell, in the hill country outside Austin, Texas. Simon invited Gibney to document recording sessions, visits from friends like Wynton Marsalis, quiet conversations in the studio between husband and wife, even time spent tuning Simon’s acoustic guitar. (A favorite saying of his is “guitarists spend half their lives tuning their guitars and the other half playing out of tune.”)
The new sessions find Simon trying to catch something delicate and evanescent, something that came to him in a Jan. 15, 2019 dream that told him, “You are working on an album called ‘Seven Psalms.’” He woke up, scribbled down the title on a piece of paper that now hangs framed in the studio, and began working on whatever that album might turn out to be. “I love the mystery,” he says to a local disc jockey he visits at the beginning of the film.
The mystery took him into an unbroken, seven-part composition that grapples with the nature of god and belief. He also deals with making an album when you can’t hear well enough to sing in tune. “I just have to learn how to sing (with the hearing loss),” he says at one point. “I haven’t figured it out yet.”
Marsalis tells him to leave in the bum notes that document his problems and Simon understands why the suggestion would make sense thematically on an album that deals with doubt and struggle. “Of course, I’m not paying attention to that,” he tells Gibney with a grin.
This new footage runs throughout the film, which is essentially structured in two parts – “VERSE ONE” and “VERSE TWO.” But “Seven Psalms” also serves as a jumping-off point for the lengthy historical segments that make up most of the film and explore the life and career of a New York kid who says he grew up with four idols: Mickey Mantle, John F. Kennedy, Lenny Bruce and Elvis Presley.
Archival footage and voiceover interviews drive the narrative, but you have to listen to the tone of Simon’s voice to work out which are preexisting interviews and which are new, as he tells about meeting Art Garfunkel as teenagers and making their first record at the age of 15. It got them on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” where he inexplicably told Clark he was from Macon, Georgia.
The Simon and Garfunkel story has been told plenty of times before: They signed to Columbia Records on the strength of the song “The Sounds of Silence” and put out an album, “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.,” that didn’t sell; Simon went to London and made a solo album, “The Paul Simon Songbook”; some radio stations back in the States began playing “The Sounds of Silence”; producer Tom Wilson overdubbed a band on the acoustic track; it became a hit, reaching No. 1 on the charts the day Simon returned to the U.S. “I told myself, my life is irrevocably changed,” says Simon. He was right.
Gibney uses abundant 1960s footage to illustrate Simon’s journey, including concert footage that grows more assured and impressive as Simon becomes a stronger performer. The fracturing of his relationship with Garfunkel naturally takes up lots of space in the middle of the film – Garfunkel, who didn’t write the songs, was encouraged by Mike Nichols to pursue a movie career, which took him away from the studio and helped drive a wedge between the two. “It takes two people to make a group, and it takes two people to be jerks,” says Garfunkel.
Verse One of Gibney’s film ends with the breakup of Simon and Garfunkel, and Verse Two picks up as Simon embarks on a solo career that Columbia Records chief Clive Davis tells him will be “the biggest mistake of your life.” Spoiler alert: Davis was wrong, with the solo career allowing Simon to explore world music, including reggae in the hit “Mother and Child Reunion” and gospel in “Loves Me Like a Rock.” The 1975 album “Still Crazy After All These Years” hit No. 1 and won the Album of the Year Grammy, and Simon became a mainstay on the new program produced by his pal Lorne Michaels, “Saturday Night Live.”
Simon’s disillusioned Nixon-era song “American Tune” is one of the few songs to get a complete performance and it’s stunning, but it also leads into a period in which Simon made the unsuccessful movie “One-Trick Pony” and the subsequent album “Hearts and Bones,” a moving chronicle of his short-lived marriage to Carrie Fisher that was his worst-selling record to date.
The sequence on Fisher and their marriage is lovely and touching, and it allows Gibney to slide easily into Simon’s relationship with Brickell, which began when she was performing her hit “What I Am” on “Saturday Night Live” and was completely spooked by the sight of Simon watching her from in front of a camera. (Footage of that performance is priceless.)
Without getting at all tabloid-y, this stretch helps tie together Simon’s work and life, and gives “In Restless Dreams” an unexpected and valuable intimacy. And then we’re into the “Graceland” era, when Simon headed to South Africa to experiment with new sounds, producing a landmark album and angering some who thought he was defying a U.N. cultural boycott and supporting an apartheid regime by recording there. (His reasoning, then and now: He wasn’t supporting the white regime, he was supporting the Black musicians.)
The footage from the Graceland tour is spectacular and so are the songs from his 1990 follow-up, “The Rhythm of the Saints,” which was built around West African and Brazilian drumming. That latter footage, from another Central Park show, meshes seamlessly into a final bit of recording for “Seven Psalms” and a montage that brings the film to a conclusion by summing up Simon’s life and career. In a way, it’s satisfying, but it also skips almost 30 years of Simon’s career, years that included “The Capeman,” a Broadway show that flopped but included some remarkable moments, and five subsequent albums he wrote and recorded between 2000 and 2018.
Ignoring Simon in the 21st-century prior may be a logical move if you want to stick with work that had a commercial or cultural impact, but it shortchanges some vital recordings and seems to suggest that Simon had been dormant for 30 years. And a three-and-a-half hour running time promises some degree of completism – heck, you could listen to the entire “Seven Psalms” album seven times in the time it takes to watch this movie.
Still, “In Restless Dreams” captures an important artist at a crucial time in his life, and finds a way to do so with humor, pathos and a sense of wonder. Simon gets the last words and they are fitting for the journey Gibney has taken us on: “It’s a mystery,” he says. “It’s a big mystery.”
“Paul Simon: In Restless Dreams” is a sales title at TIFF.