In Restless Dreams – The Music of Paul Simon

This biographical documentary is one minute under three and a half hours long.  I had already ordered an ice cream before the young man at the box office told me it had an interval because it was so long, otherwise I would have ordered coffee first and then ice cream at interval to help in my quest to stay awake, which is always a problem for me in a dark heated space.

But I stayed awake because this is a very engaging story.  Disclosure:  I’ve always loved Paul Simon.  He’s one of the great modern songwriter/musicians, up there with Lennon and Macartney and Paul Kelly and the Finn brothers and I’m going to stop there because there are bound to be loads more I should name but it would take too long.

As the title prefigures, the central focus of the film is Simon’s music-making rather than his personal life, but at least the relationship with Art Garfunkel is explored in satisfactory detail. 

They met at school when they were both 10 years old and started making music together right from the start.  People want to know: why did they break up?  Well, it’s not news but I got the impression it was largely Garfunkel’s choice.  Although he was a skilled musical arranger and had the better voice, it was Simon who wrote the songs and asserted control of the overall Simon & Garfunkel creative project.  Garfunkel became impatient with Simon’s perfectionism during production of Bridge Over Troubled Water and went off to pursue his acting career, having become close to movie director Mike Nichols who cast him in 1971’s successful Carnal Knowledge. 

Art Garfunkel from the cover of ‘Angel Clare’

Garfunkel went on to enjoy a successful solo career in music and acting.  (His 1973 album Angel Clare is sublime.)  And it’s a myth that they were permanently estranged.  There were many personal and professional reunions over the years apart from the famous 1981 concert in Central Park. 

I could have wished for more on Paul Simon’s family background.  His father was a teacher and band-leader who also played bass guitar.  We do see footage of a middle-aged Paul Simon being driven through the moderately prosperous middle class New York suburb of Queens to point out the nice house in which he grew up.  The film doesn’t mention siblings but post-movie googling revealed there is at least one brother.

There is a revealing moment where he muses about the time early on when S & G were asked to perform (for no fee which is curious) at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, on a bill with Jimi Hendrix and The Who.  We see Hendrix setting his guitar on fire, Keith Moon kicking over his drumkit and Pete Townsend smashing his guitar to bits.  Simon shakes his head as he remembers how long it took him to save up for his own first guitar.  He was no anarchist, although he did espouse all the right social and political causes. 

There is a lot of good stuff about his love life.  A shy English girl called Kathy was his first great love.  He met her in England in the sixties when he was troubadouring around the folk scene there.  She’s the love lying waiting silently for him in Homeward Bound, and the named subject of the tender love ballad Kathy’s Song.  She accompanied him back to the US where they boarded a Greyhound and went off ‘to look for America’, a road trip famously documented in his soulful anthem named after the subject of the quest.

There are hints in America of the decline of their relationship.  Throw in the piercing melancholy of Dangling Conversation and you get the full picture of how things ended between them.  Kathy went back to England because she didn’t want to live life in the spotlight with a tumultuously restless creative spirit such as Paul Simon.

Paul Simon went on to marry three times, but was never again so revealing about his emotional life as he had been about Kathy.  We don’t see much here of his first wife, Peggy Harper, but we do see their son Harper, ‘the child of my first marriage’ with whom he travels down the Mississippi delta (‘shining like a National guitar’ – such a brilliant wordsmith!) to visit Graceland.

His second wife was Carrie Fisher, about whom he wrote Hearts and Bones.  ‘One and one half wandering Jews/free to wander wherever they choose’.  She’s the half – her father was Jewish.  The marriage only lasted a year, and was described by both as a mistake, with not too many hard feelings on either side.

Edie Brickell

We learn a lot about his third and most successful marriage, to singer Edie Brickell.  They met in 1988 when she and her band The New Bohemians performed on the set of Saturday Night Live, on which Simon was a frequent guest and often host.  He was captivated by her and no wonder – she was a long-haired pre-Raphaelite beauty of 22 who wrote the same brainy, edgy lyrics as he did.  (Check out their big hit What I Am: ‘Philosophy…is talk on a cereal box.  Religion…is the smile on a dog.’)

But she seems to have abandoned her own musical career to become his muse and helpmeet.  There was a brief bust-up in 2014 when they were both arrested for disorderly conduct over a domestic row, but there were no charges and the marriage endures.  They have three children together, although sadly for my voyeuristic inclinations we don’t see them. 

Edie is there in the opening sequences of In Restless Dreams which show him working on his latest project Seven Psalms at their Texas ranch.  She’s still beautiful in her fifties, he’s in his early eighties and showing his age.  His voice isn’t what it was either, but it’s fascinating to see what an experimental and original music-maker he still is.  His passion for the music of other cultures has sometimes got him into trouble, as with the Graceland project, but he has always managed to stare down the ideologues of identity politics to produce what are now classics of contemporary and world music. 

There are no talking heads in this film.  The story is told by people introduced through expertly chosen archival footage.  An especially serendipitous sequence shows the young Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel tripping happily down a street.  While Simon’s voiceover tells of hearing the news that Sound of Silence had just got to number one, we see him with a big smile on his face break into a crazy joyful run.  The years of angst and loneliness and sticking to his creative guns had finally paid off.