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‘In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon’ Review: Alex Gibney’s Brilliantly Composed Doc Charts the Singer-Songwriter’s Career

“People used to say I had my finger on the pulse,” Paul Simon tells Alex Gibney early in his artfully composed documentary, In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon. “I just have my finger out there and the pulse is running under it.” Either way, few people have had as central a role in American pop music and culture as Simon. Gibney, best-known for exposes including The Inventor, about Elizabeth Holmes’ tech-company fraud, and Going Clear, on Scientology, turns out to be the ideal director to explore Simon’s long, varied run.

Simon invited Gibney into his home studio in Wimberly, Texas, where the cameras watch him tinker with the sound on his latest album, Seven Psalms (released in May) and talk about his career, inspirations, aging and what the loss of hearing in his left ear has meant. With that album as an anchor, the film mostly flashes back and forth in time, using a wealth of revealing archival interviews and extended performance clips. It takes us from the immense popularity and folk sound of Simon’s years as part of Simon & Garfunkel to his solo career informed by world music from Africa and South America.

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Although Gibney sets Simon in the social context of his times over the last six decades, the documentary assumes rather than proves his importance. And his name may evoke no more than a vague idea of “that guy from Simon & Garfunkel” to anyone in their 20s or even 30s. People not already interested in Simon will probably want a different film. For anyone else, In Restless Dreams is fascinating and lively from start to finish. Running three and a half hours, it never feels padded.

In the rustic-looking home studio, Simon, now 81, with white hair poking out from under a faded red baseball cap, describes the songs in Seven Psalms as “an argument I’m having with myself about belief or not.” The film’s title is a line from Simon & Garfunkel’s first hit, “The Sound of Silence,” but also alludes to the inspiration for the latest album, which Simon says came in a dream that gave him the phrase “seven psalms” and the idea that he should be writing something about that. Seven Psalms is, fortunately, not the film’s main concern. The album has been well-received by critics, but lines like “The Lord is my engineer” may not be the most enduring Simon ever wrote.

The documentary is at its best weaving in all those fresh and often startling clips, which Gibney and his editor, Andy Grieve, have cut and compiled to flow gracefully. They include scenes of Simon in London in the 1960s, comic moments from appearances on Late Night With David Letterman, and many gem-like musical scenes, such as Simon and George Harrison singing “Here Comes the Sun” on Saturday Night Live. The always lucid context comes from the clips themselves or from Simon’s interviews with Gibney.

Many episodes here are eye- and ear-opening. Simon fled to live in England in 1964 after Simon & Garfunkel’s first album flopped. While he was gone, their producer, Tom Wilson, added electric instruments and drums to the acoustic “Sound of Silence,” and the single took off. It’s one thing to know that but much more visceral to hear that hit-making difference in the film. The same goes for the way Simon & Garfunkel’s sound engineer and producer Roy Halee recorded the drums for “The Boxer” echoing through an elevator shaft.

There are just a few additional voices in the film: Simon’s wife, the singer Edie Brickell; Wynton Marsalis, who offers another ear in the home studio; and Lorne Michaels, whom we’re reminded here was best man at Simon’s wedding to Carrie Fisher. But the most important extra voice is Art Garfunkel’s, heard now and then in audio and on video, all of it archival. Gibney gives us both sides of the story of the duo’s 1970 breakup, which came after “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” which they recorded separately because Garfunkel was away acting in Mike Nichols’ Catch-22. Garfunkel says he felt Simon was holding back other parts of his career. Simon says he went solo because Garfunkel wasn’t making himself available enough. But this is Simon’s film and, as in almost any documentary with a cooperative subject, his version is given more weight.

That solo career led Simon to South Africa and his hit 1986 album Graceland. True to its deft style, the film lets us see and hear the extraordinary changes in his music as it evolved. And the documentary offers a reminder that Graceland was controversial when it was released because South Africa was still under apartheid, and the UN had sanctioned a cultural boycott. Simon chose to feature South African musicians on his album instead.

At one point, Simon tells Gibney that he is fascinated by the way songs change over time. Later we get a dynamic example with 1973’s “American Tune,” played in full in the documentary. Written post-Watergate, its piercing melody and world-weary lyrics resonate more hauntingly now, with the lines “I saw the Statue of Liberty sailing away to sea,” and “We come in the age’s most uncertain hour / And sing an American tune.” It’s a sign of how well the film’s understated approach works, and of how Gibney trusts his audience, that he doesn’t make the connection to today overt. He doesn’t have to. Behind the song, he shows images of the Vietnam war, Richard Nixon and everyday factory workers. The sequence lands like a perfect little music video. It is also a reminder of how astutely Simon has felt the pulse of the culture, in a way that can morph and touch us even now.

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