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TIFF 2023: Stop Making Sense, In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon

Musicians and movies about music have been prevalent at this year's Toronto International Film Festival, likely not just because the programmers here love a good tune, but because it’s an easy way to get talent like Lil Nas X and even Nickelback to show up when you schedule films about them—a good thing in a year when most SAG members stayed home. This unique dynamic led to some absolute, undeniable living legends making their way north this weekend, including a reunion that most fans never thought would happen.

The word that best described the Stop Making Sense event came from the Talking Heads themselves in a live Q&A: “Love.” There’s the love between the musicians on stage in the best concert film ever made. There’s the love between the filmmaker Jonathan Demme and the brilliant way he captured lightning in a bottle. There’s the love in the room four decades later as people clapped, sang, and danced along to the new IMAX restoration. When “Burning Down the House” started and David Byrne joined the dancing crowd, the event took on a surreal, religious quality. Here was one of the best musicians of all time with his bandmates, dancing and clapping to the younger versions of themselves. It was art, passion, and personality traveling through history. 

The most important thing to report is that the IMAX 4K restoration of “Stop Making Sense” is breathtaking, not just for its visual clarity but its stunning new multi-channel audio mix. As Jerry Harrison pointed out, you can just let the music wash over you, but you can also listen carefully and pick out instruments or singers in ways you couldn’t before. I know this movie by heart, and it sounds new this time. At times, I would close my eyes and let the sound wash over me.

As for the movie itself, it’s one of those classics that’s better every time I see it. Yes, a lot of credit goes to The Talking Heads and the brilliant stage show they assembled, which basically puts itself together as you watch it. Of course, they were also just at the top of their musical powers at this point in their careers. The actual performance remains breathtaking, a phenomenal example of collaboration. Byrne pointed out in the Q&A (moderated by Spike Lee) that Demme saw each person on stage as a member of the ensemble, which is why his camera gives them each time in the spotlight. He treated this performance not just like a filmed concert but almost like he would a narrative film. And the editing by Lisa Day is some of the best ever. The way she moves from player to player and holds a certain shot, or cuts at just the right time—it gives me the chills every time. It's not just as a piece of musical brilliance, but of filmmaking, too. 

Naturally, it was a very big deal for fans of The Talking Heads to see them in the same space for the first time in decades. They are notoriously not fans of each other—well, pretty much David vs. the other three—and one could sense a bit of chilliness from Tina Weymouth. But even she was informative (she never turned her amp up over three so as not to drown out with bass) and receptive. Most of all, there was a sense in this theater that “Stop Making Sense” is more than just a concert film. It’s special. It’s love.

Love and clear admiration for his subject grounds Alex Gibney’s very good “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon,” an epic examination of the work of one of the best songwriters in history. Gibney uses the production of Simon’s recent Seven Psalms to look back on six decades of music, including some of the most beloved and influential work of all time. And Gibney and Simon take their time with history and process, resulting in a 209-minute documentary. Even within that epic time, they basically (and somewhat frustratingly) end their piece with The Rhythm of the Saints, meaning they could have gone at least another hour. Perhaps the best praise I can pay this film is that I wouldn’t have minded. I’ve seen movies here at TIFF this year that were half as long and felt twice as draining as this one. For the most part, Gibney and Simon have given us a consistently interesting study of one of the most essential musicians in history. Simon can be a perfectionist, but you can still see what’s almost a sense of calm come over his face when something works. It’s magical, and he’s given us so much of that magic over the years.

From his childhood friendship with Art Garfunkel through their essential partnership to their break-up, “In Restless Dreams” is essential for anyone who has been moved by albums like Sounds of Silence of Bridge Over Troubled Water. My favorite material here isn’t so much the salacious stuff about the split or his marriage to Carrie Fisher but the scenes that lean heavily into the process, which clearly inspired Gibney, too. In fact, I could have used more stuff about the recordings of the Simon & Garfunkel albums, like the fact that those amazing drums at the end of “The Boxer” were recorded in an elevator shaft to get that echoing boom or that "Mrs. Robinson" was basically made up as it was being recorded for "The Graduate." Simon’s songwriting process became something of a sticking point with Garfunkel, who is heard here a few times but only seen in archival footage. Gibney avoids talking-head tropes wherein bio-docs rely too heavily on anecdotes and insight from outsiders by really centering Paul (and a decent amount with his wife Edie Brickell).

This approach arguably skims the surface of a few things that Simon historians may want analyzed deeper, like Simon’s arrogance and arguable exploitation of world music—both of which are touched on briefly, for the record—but it also gives this film a deeply personal feeling, one reflected by his latest album, which has a serene calm to it that comes with age. As for the film, it’s clear that Simon and Gibney wanted to focus on the music, leading to some lengthy concert footage—one late in the film in Zimbabwe is particularly breathtaking, and there’s some great material from the Central Park reunion in the early ‘80s. In the end, it’s the music that matters to this man. It’s what he feels and breathes and needs to function. It’s how he brings us those restless dreams of his. And how he can find rest, too.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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