Alex Gibney documents the work of Paul Simon in this extensive tour guided by the musician himself

In Restless Dreams: The Music Of Paul Simon

Source: Toronto International Film Festival

‘In Restless Dreams: The Music Of Paul Simon’


Dir: Alex Gibney. US. 2023. 209mins

As its title suggests, In Restless Dreams: The Music Of Paul Simon is more an exploration of the art than the artist, offering a generous three-and-a-half-hour tour through the songwriter’s most memorable creative periods and indelible tunes. Using the making of Simon’s most recent album, Seven Psalms, as his narrative spine, director Alex Gibney sketches out the 60-plus-year history of a musician who has been constantly open to new directions and always trusts his instincts. There are some inevitable limitations inherent to the rock-doc treatment of a beloved icon, but having the opportunity to luxuriate in so many classic songs, with their maker as a guide, is an invitation no fan will want to pass up.

Simon doesn’t exactly open up in Gibney’s film, but maybe he doesn’t need to: it’s all there in the music

Between Robert Hilburn’s 2019 biography and Joe Berlinger’s 2012 documentary Under African Skies, about Simon’s Grammy-winning ’Graceland’ album, the New York artist has been well documented on the page and on screen, but In Restless Dreams is a consistently engaging overview that weaves together his past and present adroitly. Premiering in Toronto, the documentary may be a difficult theatrical prospect because of its hefty runtime, but it should fit nicely on streamers and premium cable.

Now living in Wimberly, Texas, with his wife Edie Brickell, Simon is seen in 2021 toiling in the studio on Seven Psalms, a more meditative and spiritually searching work than his previous albums. Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side) intermittently charts the songwriter’s progress on the record while recounting Simon’s career from his early days with childhood friend Art Garfunkel to his later solo records. Drawing from archival footage and present-day interviews, In Restless Dreams outlines the singer’s many highs and occasional lows, ending in the early 1990s after the triumph of ’Graceland’ and ’The Rhythm Of The Saints’. 

Simon, who turns 82 next month, speaks slowly, his lilting singing voice not as strong as it once was. (He also recently lost his hearing in his left ear.) Understandably, mortality has been at the centre of his last few albums, and while death is rarely discussed in the documentary,  the poignancy of time passing is evident as we witness the juxtaposition of the youthful Simon palling around with Garfunkel and the older Simon talking on the phone about his health issues. But Gibney doesn’t press too hard on this topic — or, frankly, much else regarding the artist’s personal life — sticking to the significant cultural contributions Simon has made with his generation-defining folk and pop anthems.

Gibney’s frequent editor Andy Grieve moves briskly from era to era, giving songs like ‘The Sound Of Silence’ and ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ special attention, the lyrics appearing on screen in what appears to be Simon’s handwriting. Simon sometimes provides background on how a particular track was born, but his assertion that there’s something unknowable about how musical ideas come to him is echoed in the unfussy presentation. For as many great songs as he has authored, In Restless Dreams is refreshingly lacking in awe about its subject, treating him instead like a hard-working craftsman forever dedicated to making good music. 

For better or worse, the documentary refuses to impose an emotional throughline onto Simon’s story or put forth a grandiose theory about his artistry. Gibney takes a backseat, enticing viewers with never-before-seen clips of Simon & Garfunkel in the studio and including Simon’s own thoughts about embracing reggae, mbaqanga, zydeco and other musical forms to push his songwriting into new terrain. On the one hand, In Restless Dreams benefits from not being forced to justify some laboured thematic conceit, but on the other, the straightforward career recounting can become pedestrian. Then again, this is where the catalogue of hits helps: audiences will be happily humming along from start to finish. 

Because Simon isn’t especially forthcoming, there aren’t necessarily any major revelations. Still testy about Garfunkel after all these years, he presents his version of events to explain their breakup, while the controversy surrounding ’Graceland’, which was accused by some of violating the United Nations’ cultural boycott of apartheid-era South Africa, isn’t examined with much nuance. (Berlinger’s Under African Skies had more time to devote to the complicated issue.) 

And while the film does make room to discuss some of Simon’s mis-steps — including his failed married to Carrie Fisher and his directorial debut, 1980’s One-Trick Pony, which flopped — hardcore fans may be disappointed that the documentary stops at ’The Rhythm Of The Saints’, ignoring Simon’s fascinating, misguided 1998 musical The Capeman and his continued sonic experimentation over the last few decades.

In other words, at 209 minutes, In Restless Dreams could have been even longer and more comprehensive. But the documentary ends where it began, with Simon working on ’Seven Psalms’, a pensive album that wrestles with the big questions about life, death and the existence of God. Simon doesn’t exactly open up in Gibney’s film, but maybe he doesn’t need to: it’s all there in the music.

Production company: Jigsaw

International sales: Altitude Film Sales,

US sales: United Talent Agency,; and AC Independent, 

Producers: Erin Edeiken, Svetlana Zill, Alex Gibney, David Rahtz 

Cinematography: Benjamin Bloodwell

Editing: Andy Grieve