Simon & Garfunkel: Songs of America (Charles Grodin, 1969)

The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Simon & Garfunkel: Songs of America.

criterion logoDirected by their friend Charles Grodin and airing almost two months before the release of Bridge Over Troubled Water, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s 1969 television special Simon & Garfunkel: Songs of America previewed their landmark album and shows the two on stage, in the studio, and on a concert tour across a turbulent country. The documentary follows the duo in cinéma verité style while interspersing footage of the social movements that defined a nation growing more aware, more sophisticated, and more complex. The special’s initial sponsor infamously balked at footage of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, the Poor People’s March on Washington, and the recently slain Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Though unpopular at the time, Songs of America has become an enduring portrait of an era and of Simon & Garfunkel as artists, with incisive commentary provided by iconic songs like “America,” “The Boxer,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “The Sound of Silence,” “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could),” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

SPECIAL FEATURES:

  • New high-definition digital restoration with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Robert Ryan’s 1969 introduction to the television special
  • The Harmony Game, Jennifer Lebeau’s 2011 feature-length documentary on the making of Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water album
  • Remembering Chuck, new interviews with Simon and Garfunkel on their personal and professional friendship with Grodin
  • Saturday Night Live sketch from 1977 featuring Charles Grodin, Paul Simon, and Art Garfunkel
  • PLUS: A new essay by rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres

With the sad news of Charles Grodin’s passing in May, thoughts at MMC! have turned to Hollywood’s favourite grump and his place in the Criterion Collection. Grodin’s sole appearance in the Collection’s physical media library is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) wherein he plays the small role of obstetrician Dr. Hill. Grodin grabbed attention two years later playing Captain “Aarfy” Aardvark in Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970) and then established himself as a comedic actor two years after that as the titular character in Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972). For many cinephiles with ideas of seeing more Charles Grodin in the Collection, The Heartbreak Kid is a natural first choice, with Grodin giving a bravura performance in black comedy and the film becoming a cinematic delicacy due to its complicated rights and resultant scarcity. MMC! will take a different tack, proposing a wacky “C” for one of Grodin’s rare directorial efforts: his 1969 TV special, Simon & Garfunkel: Songs of America.

Bridge Over Troubled WaterBy all rights, Simon & Garfunkel: Songs of America should have been a resounding success. In the four years prior to the TV special airing on CBS, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel had become musical icons. The lackluster debut of their studio album Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M. (1964) had pivoted into a massive success thanks to Columbia Records issuing staffer Tom Wilson’s remix of “The Sound of Silence” in late 1965. By January 1966, the song had sold more than a million copies and reached number 1 on the Billboard Top 100. The duo cemented their breakthrough with their follow-up Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme (1966), then achieved monumental success with the soundtrack to Mike Nichols’ The Graduate (1967) and their album Bookends (1968). Two months after Songs of America aired, Simon & Garfunkel released Bridge Over Troubled Water (1970) to record-breaking successes. The album swept the Grammys with six awards, sold 25 million copies worldwide, spent 10 weeks at number one in the US, and topped the UK charts for 35 weeks over 18 months. For many Americans who tuned into the special, Songs of America would be their first exposure to that landmark album, hearing for the first time “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” “”El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could),” “The Boxer,” “Song for the Asking,” and the legendary “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Television viewers nevertheless passed on the opportunity, presumably alienated by the duo’s political lamentations and by Grodin’s confrontational imagery of poverty, social activism, and slain progressive leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., President John F. Kennedy, and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. American televisions in the fall of 1969 were bringing news of the My Lai massacre, Chicago’s Days of Rage, the Occupation of Alcatraz, and Washington’s March Against Death. On the night before the United States’ first Vietnam draft lottery, viewers likely wanted to hear “koo-koo-ka-choo” and little else. By the first commercial break, a million American television sets left Songs of America to watch NBC’s figure-skating extravaganza, Peggy Fleming at Madison Square Garden.

In an early sequence of Songs of America that depicts the in-studio recording process for Bridge Over Troubled Water, Paul Simon catches sight of a camera while he prepares to perform and seems momentarily gripped by the reality of being seen. Stumbling a bit and looking somewhat anxious, he remarks on the difference between his art form and Grodin’s, noting that music conjures images in the minds of the performer and the listener while film trades in specific images. For Simon, music seems to offer space for flexibility, subjectivity, and forgiveness, while film intimidates with its directness and the hegemony of its visuals. The naïveté of the scene stands in contrast to the pointed sections of vertical montage employed by Grodin. Songs of America opens with shots of the United States accompanied by Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” and Paul Simon’s voice-over expressing his general view that something great feels at hand yet is consistently being missed. Aptly titled to open the TV special, the song concerns a pair of hitchhiking lovers and conjures an optimistic view of the bucolic hills, roads, and mountains that initiate the sequence, however the imagery turns as Simon’s voice-over expresses frustration at lost potential, shifting first to crowded freeways, junkyards, and smoking Monsanto factories, then finally to riots, fires, a bleeding black man standing in the street, and a black policeman looking upward with his gun drawn. The song’s final verse, which describes the singer feeling lost, empty, and aching without knowing why, is transformed by the images from something vague, existential, and personal to something real, material, and omnipresent. That concluding line, “They’ve all come to look for America,” was initially optimistic, hailing those pursuing the American dream. By the end of the song and the special’s initial passage, the lyric implicates the American promise as retreating from discovery, assuming it was ever there at all.

Songs of America on Hotel BedThroughout Songs of America, both Simon and Garfunkel frequently express frustration about the needlessness of the Vietnam War, the failures of their country to feed the hungry and help the disenfranchised, and the potential pointlessness of recording an album. In a moment of cheek between Simon and Grodin, the musician muses on becoming President if only he had the time and jokes that he would do so to set things straight just so he could return to his music. More seriously, Simon rejects the idea that he writes to “get through to somebody” but also asserts that it is clear to him what their music is saying and that they are obliged as artists to continue saying it until change is effected. Grodin has since remarked that his goal was to contextualize the social messages contained in Simon & Garfunkel’s music through the special’s imagery. Going further, famed documentarian Robert Drew, who served as executive producer on the project and whose facilities were used to complete the edit, claimed that Paul Simon spoke of the special as a prime time opportunity to create “a home movie about where he thought the nation was.” By no means meek in its approach, Songs of America is front-end loaded with its politics. “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” accompanies a sequence on pop culture icons including the Lone Ranger, Flash Gordon, Howdy Doody, and Lenny Bruce, then transitions to “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to present images of JFK, MLK, RFK, and RFK’s funeral train. “Scarborough Fair” soundtracks moments from Woodstock before shifting to the violence of the Vietnam War. “El Cóndor Pasa (If I Could),” with its valourization of rural over urban and activism over passivity, accompanies footage of Cesar Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association and the Poor People’s March on Washington, then mocks old, white politicians with “Punky’s Dilemma.” While it is easy to appreciate Grodin’s editing work, cutting footage of social movements against the music and lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel, it should be appreciated that neither Grodin nor his subjects fashioned connections through archival footage that did not otherwise exist. Grodin, an activist and liberal mind in those days as well as later in life, was himself responsible for shooting portions of this activist content, even traveling with Simon to meet with, march with, and film Cesar Chavez.

Overall, Songs in America resembles something of a travelogue or a rock-doc tour film, observing Simon & Garfunkel as they move through space, inter-cutting scenes on stage and in studio against liminal moments in cars, airports, and hotels. The duo’s movement, however, is uncertain with back seats, hotel rooms, and rehearsal spaces offering virtually no orienting characteristics. Space consequently flattens out to the point of being indistinguishable and lets the film spread into a broader social milieu of peaceful gatherings (Woodstock), civil activism (marches), and armed conflict (the Vietnam War). As a travelogue existing across space, Simon & Garfunkel’s music, a backdrop and a commentary on the special’s imagery, finds itself existing out of time. The duo’s material has always been inherently dislocated, rising to prominence on the back of the mid-century’s folk music revival, while tracks like “Scarborough Fair,” “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” “The Boxer,” “Homeward Bound,” and “Mystery Train” all lyrically trade on sentiments of remembrance and reflection. More than either its generic forms or its words, it is the resonating power of Roy Halee’s engineering that Grodin harnesses to give Songs of America its profound depth. Recorded in the echoing halls of Columbia Records’ New York studio and beneath the resonating interior of St. Paul’s Chapel at Columbia University, Halee’s production provides the music with a distant, reverberating authority. Famed Wrecking Crew drummer Hal Blaine remarked that “Bridge Over Troubled Water” brought to mind so strongly the image of a black man on a chain gang that he dragged and pounded his own snow tyre chains on his snare drum to achieve its lingering after-beat. Catchy and infectious tracks from the Bridge Over Troubled Water album like “Baby Driver,” “Keep the Customer Satisfied,” and “Cecilia” have no place in Songs of America. The music selected from the upcoming album boom as if traveling across vast expanses and it vocals, particularly Garfunkel’s tender choirboy register, seemingly cascades down from high heavens. The troubles shown in Songs in America are decidedly current but its music selections convey in their sounds ideals that are faraway but also massive and eternal.

TV Guide AdWhen Songs of America aired, the Alberto Culver Company of VO5 hair products trotted out sixty year-old Robert Ryan to assure his generation that the next hour with these “two young men” would be “both entertaining and stimulating.” As patronizing as that sponsor’s prologue might have been, the special’s original sponsor, the Bell Telephone Company, had demanded its $600,000 investment back after seeing Grodin’s final cut. Grodin liked to claim that his total television experience involved being fired from Candid Camera three times over six weeks, but he had befriended Simon & Garfunkel after meeting Art on the set of Catch-22 and their mutual admiration and complimentary politics made them a natural fit for the project. The final steps of the production proved difficult for Grodin. Executive producer Robert Drew called Grodin’s first assemblage of the film “unwatchable” and suggested that Grodin step aside from the project. Grodin completed a second cut overnight and Drew fully embraced the new version, but Grodin resented Drew’s criticism and the attempt to usurp him. Chuck surreptitiously cut Drew’s second production credit from the special, dropping the footage into a washroom toilet and taking out his frustrations on it accordingly. Even worse, AT&T’s press agents lambasted Grodin on his final cut, claiming that the director’s objectionable ideology (“the humanistic approach”) would be rejected by southern affiliates who would not tolerate seeing black and white children attend school together. In an expression of contemptible callousness, it was even demanded that Grodin reduce Coretta Scott King’s comments on the violence of poverty to an “inaudible” level. Grodin and his collaborators stayed thankfully true to their vision and created a moving testament to their era’s struggling idealism, one that has at least outlasted the novelty of a prime time figure skating showcase.

Tom and JerryIn July 1970, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel would shake hands in a parking lot following a New York concert and unofficially bring their powerhouse act to an end (notwithstanding various subsequent reunions and performances). Resentments had long existed between the two going back to their days recording for Big Records as Tom & Jerry. Their song “Hey Schoolgirl” had been a success but it was Paul (the singer and songwriter) who agreed to record two more tracks a solo star without telling Art. A break-up, a reunion, and then massive success wore on the duo. Despite becoming a millionaire in the process, Simon was insecure next to a taller, more often featured singer and found himself in and out of therapy for depression. In contrast, Garfunkel was keenly aware that Simon wrote their songs and controlled the fate of the act. Both musicians were cast in Nichols’ Catch-22 but Simon’s part was cut out of the script, leaving him writing and composing alone in New York during Garfunkel’s ever-protracting shoot. (Paul is that “Only Living Boy in New York” sending off the Tom of their Tom & Jerry act for a part in Mexico, and it is Simon saying so long to former architecture student Garfunkel in “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright.”) Garkunkel’s agreement to act in Nichols follow-up, Carnal Knowledge (1971), was a further blow. From Simon’s perspective, Garfunkel was plotting an exit strategy from the act and feelings further soured as Paul watched from the sidelines as Art was showered with rapturous applause for his performances of Simon’s song, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters.” Songs of America fascinates as a document that foreshadows the demise of Simon & Garfunkel. There are awkward exchanges in cars over Beethoven and the American bicentennial, troubles getting the pair’s microphones properly balanced during rehearsals, moments of Simon begging off Garfunkel as he works out a song’s composition, and numerous scenes of Garfunkel working on the phone while Simon composes and creates. Concert performances tend to prefer the pair harmonizing, but the Bridge Over Troubled Water album is characterized by the pair’s increasing practice of singing individually and Grodin’s choice to use these tracks as commentary on its montage sequences only adds to the dissociated and melancholy quality of these passages. In this way, Simon & Garfunkel the act reflects the nature of the times they comment upon, being as confused and frustrated an enterprise as the society it aims to interrogate.

close-up-tv-listingSimon & Garfunkel: Songs of America, along with Jennifer Lebeau’s The Harmony Game, was released on DVD with the 40th anniversary CD of Bridge Over Troubled Water back in 2011, but does anyone other than MMC! still buy compact discs? A Criterion release of Songs of America could beautifully commemorate the late Charles Grodin by celebrating in Blu-ray quality high definition both his long friendship with Simon and Garfunkel and his outspoken progressive values. A Criterion edition of this rare directorial effort by Grodin would also dovetail nicely with various titles in the Collection by providing more Charles Grodin, more Art Garfunkel, more music by Paul Simon, more music by Simon & Garfunkel, and more fabulous on-stage performances captured on film. When it comes to a cover treatment to emblazon with a spine number and a wacky “C,” MMC! is less interested in an artist and more interested in a concept. Can we have a transgressive TV Guide-style cover for Songs of America, one that addresses not just its artists but its brazen politics and confrontational depiction of its times? I think Chuck would appreciate that.

Credits: In addition to Songs of America, MMC! has included The Harmony Game as it doubles as a making-of for both the album and the television special, featuring interviews with Grodin, Simon, Garfunkel, and others. The Remembering Chuck feature is entirely an invention and the SNL skit had to be chosen for Grodin’s haphazard attempt to impersonate Garfunkel and sing with Simon. Legendary rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres was chosen to provide a booklet essay based on his article for The Stingray Blog.

This proposal also owes great thanks to Adam Schartoff’s videos of Charles Grodin and Art Garfunkel being interviewed a Paley Media Center screening of Songs of America, Dorian Lynskey and Adam Behr’s essays on the political roots of Bridge Over Troubled Water for the BBC and The New European respectively, Bill DeMain’s Louder article on the album’s making, Stephen M. Deusner’s album review for Pitchfork, and Kera Bolonik’s article for Salon on Art Garfunkel’s lasting grudge against Mike Nichols.

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