Paul Simon: Born at the Right Time

Sundance Film Festival–Audiences expecting a comprehensive view of Paul Simon's career and life will be disappointed with the new documentary, Paul Simon: Born at the Right Time, a rather selective profile of the rock superstar. Made for television, as the first segment of the seventh season of “American Masters” (to air on PBS on March 6), docu provides an eclectic perspective of the singer, dwelling too extensively on his l99l-2 tour while neglecting other aspects. Still, Simon's stature and docu's proficient tech credits (with lensing by the late Christian Blackwood) will facilitate airings on TV and other venues.

Following a brief sketch of Simon's middle-class childhood in Queens, New York, docu charts his long-time friendship and partnership with Art Garfunkel, whom he had met as an adolescent.

Garfunkel is insightful when he talks about their mutually beneficial collaboration–Simon gave him energy and ambition, he gave Simon confidence–and how Simon became a singer when he realized that “being a singer was a key to popularity.” But neither he nor Simon is particularly persuasive when they attribute their famous l969 breakup to personal reasons–their “difficulty of finding common ground.”

Docu includes archival footage of Simon and Garfunkel's first performances under the pseudonym Tom and Jerry, scenes from Simon's “Saturday Night Live” appearances (including one in which he dressed as a turkey), and extensive coverage of his controversial l991-2 worldwide tour, with stops in China, South America and South Africa.

Simon claims his philosophy of cultural diversity, reflected in interest in rhythms and instruments of other cultures, is based on his belief that all human beings “are connected on this very basic emotional level by music–by rhythm and harmony.”

With the l986 Graceland album, which blended contemporary American with South African music, Simon created an intrinsically global music stamped with his singular style. “Simon's music is about the world, not about one particular nation,” says guitarist Ray Phiri, a South African member of his international band.

One controversy mentioned, but not really explored, is the charge that Simon “lifted” and exploited African music for his own purposes. Docu is also disappointing in its treatment of the star's personal life; he is uncomfortable talking about his brief marriage to actress Carrie Fisher. “I had luck in every area but personal relationships,” Simon says rather succinctly.

Simon's durability in a tough, competitive business is explained by his drive and his ability to adopt new styles of music. But it is a testament to the documentary's shortcomings that when the final credits roll, the singer's personality still remains somewhat vague.


A Thirteen/WNET “American Masters” production, with MTM Enterprises Inc. in association with EuroArts. Produced by Susan Lacy. Directed by Susan Steinberg. Camera (color), Christian Blackwood; editor, Deborah Peretz; associate producers, Jan Wenk-Cedras, Allyson Luchak. Reviewed at the Sundance Film Festival, Park City, Utah, Jan. 28, 1993. Running time: 110 min.

With Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, Eddie Simon, Lorne Michaels, Mike Nichols and others.