Alex Gibney documentary mirrors the working process of musical icon Paul Simon


“In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon,” Alex Gibney’s 3½-hour documentary about singer-songwriter Paul Simon — streaming in two parts on MGM+ — takes its title from a line in “The Sound of Silence,” the 1964 song that would make Simon and his performing partner, Art Garfunkel, household names. The lyric also suggests something about the approach Gibney, a much-lauded documentarian whose films have won an Academy Award and multiple Emmys, takes in this exploration of Simon’s career and the making of his 2023 album, “Seven Psalms.”

The hook is undeniable. In 2021, Gibney brings a minimal crew into Simon’s cabin studio at his home in Wimberley, Texas, to capture the brainstorming and recording of a suite of new songs. The filmmaker, whose 2015 documentary “Frank Sinatra: All or Nothing at All” impressed Simon, had already been discussing a project with him when the offer came.

“We first met in the back of a small restaurant in Austin, Texas,” Gibney recalled. “I made the mistake of wearing a Boston Red Sox hat. But I think we got past that, anyway.” Later, the men broke the ice in an appropriate fashion. “We played catch, I think the first day. … He’s got a good lefty delivery. I just started hanging out as he was kind of working through stuff.”

The intimate segments spiral off from conversational cues into a lifetime of memories: Simon’s and those of an American pop consciousness he’s helped to shape since 1957, when “Hey, Schoolgirl,” recorded with Garfunkel under the name Tom & Jerry, became a hit for the two Queens, N.Y., teenagers.

“We were kind of free associating,” Gibney said, in a recent conversation from his home in coastal Maine. “There was a lot about Paul’s songwriting method which is purposefully mindful, in the sense that you don’t pre-edit too much. You let things flow, whether it’s a tune or phrases that you’ve heard that you like and you’re not quite sure how they fit. In the editing, we wanted to free associate that way too. We didn’t want to be too rigid. We wanted to see what comes up.”

The filmmaker had access to Simon’s archives and enjoyed a perhaps surprising degree of elbow room in his close encounters with the performer, now 82, who’s grappling with the near-total loss of hearing in his left ear even as his new lyrics deal with questions of faith and mortality. “As Wynton said, you know, keep the struggle in there,” Gibney said, referring to jazz artist Wynton Marsalis, who along with Simon’s wife, Texas singer-songwriter Edie Brickell, lends aural support in the studio. “I think [Simon] reckoned with that. In other words, that maybe this was meant to happen, and it became part of the creative process.”

Gibney’s own process was aided a great deal by uncovering a wealth of unseen material — from Simon’s vault and elsewhere — that made decades of music-making feel immediate to the eye and ear. “Paul was a pretty good archivist,” he said. The footage illuminates all sorts of moments. There’s innovative recording engineer Roy Halee accidentally creating the double drum hits at the end of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” in an outtake from “Simon and Garfunkel: Songs of America,” a 1969 TV special that marks a rare directorial credit for actor Charles Grodin.

There are also new angles on famous concerts , such as Simon performing in Zimbabwe with the extraordinary group of South African musicians that made “Graceland,” compelled by a roaring crowd to play “You Can Call Me Al” twice in a row. A favorite for Gibney is an audiocassette message with an early version of “Kathy’s Song,” recorded for its muse, Simon’s English girlfriend Kathy Chitty. “I mean, talking about being dreamlike. You feel like you’re experiencing a memory,” he said, “as if it’s floating through your head.”

Working toward such a vibe was, for film editor Andy Grieve, both refreshing and a challenge. The documentary avoids the array of talking heads common to nearly every musical biography and skips a lot of obvious jukebox choices, all the better to get at something essential as chronological “then” and “now” coexist.

“We definitely tried to blur the lines,” Grieve said. “I feel like we were able to treat the past as new revelations, where it doesn’t feel like you’re going over something you’ve seen and heard a million times. Where it’s digging to a deeper level. We were trying to stay away from having to check off the boxes of the Wikipedia page.”

Gibney, whose musical subjects also have included James Brown, cites one film in particular as his “North Star” for music docs: “Gimme Shelter,” the 1970 Rolling Stones documentary by the Maysles Brothers and Charlotte Zwerin, the editor who, he said, “turned a vérité movie about the Stones into a murder mystery that was also an exploration of the changing of an era.”

The film impressed with its sense of discovery, Gibney continues, something the studio encounters of “In Restless Dreams” might call to mind, as Simon strives to spark a little magic.

“There’s a sequence in [“Shelter”] where … you’re watching the Stones listening to the playback of ‘Wild Horses,’” he said. “Turns out there’s something very poignant about watching people listening. Who knew? That’s a moment of discovery.”



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