“Bridge Over Troubled Water: 40th Anniversary Edition” with “The Harmony Game: The Making of Bridge Over Troubled Water”/”Songs Of America”
With the re-issue of Simon & Garfunkel’s triumphant and final full-length recording, Bridge Over Troubled Water, comes two films – a documentary chronicling the album’s creation and the unreleased TV special, Songs Of America.
The opening of The Harmony Game sets up the doc’s title as much as it represents the combustible friendship and musical partnership of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. As Art criticizes a vocal line, he mentions that the hitmaking duo are in the “the harmony game.” Simon’s reaction? He rolls his eyes and incredulously spits out the words back at his childhood buddy and longtime creative partner. In a flash of seconds the artistic split of Simon & Garfunkel can be understood as one person yearns to break free of the past versus the other who wants to maintain the vocal tendencies that led to such hits as “Homeward Bound,” “Mrs. Robinson” and “The Sounds of Silence.”
In spite of this, much of The Harmony Game remains upbeat. Clearly, the two are proud, and possibly even a little surprised, at not only what developed artistically over their career but how deeply audiences took to their approach. Like the “Classic Albums” series DVDs, this features archival footage with recent interviews and an emphasis on particular tracks. Simon & Garfunkel balance memories of two artists working at the peak of their game with the wisdom acquired from the decades that have passed. Producer Roy Halee presents enlightening and enthusiastic responses while the other musicians who appeared on the album capably fill in the gaps. It’s also illuminating to watch Garfunkel shown here as more than a vocalist. One sees a clearer picture of his contributions to the material, as an arranger, producer and singer.
While the menu settings on the DVD place The Harmony Game as the second segment, it’s better to view the doc prior to the duo’s controversial 1969 TV special Songs Of America. Although footage is taken from that show, Harmony sets it up by explaining the innerworkings of the songs, their approach and their (naïve) state of mind that combining social commentary with their music would be accepted during that turbulent era.
About three minutes into America the images change from the inspiring landscapes of the Grand Canyon and the redwood forest to depict that this land isn’t completely made for you and me. Not so subtly it reminds viewers that it also includes the ones who live in dilapidated houses, are treated much more forcefully by police and aren’t living the American Dream. Director Charles Grodin intercuts New York Yankees baseball hero Mickey Mantle with comedy outlaw Lenny Bruce. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” then provides the soundtrack for the onetime hope of a brighter future by the union of President John F. Kennedy’s days in office with the activism of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy joining in a Native-American ceremony. The knowledge of what happens to those heighten the song acting like a salve to a wound.
“Scarborough Fair” finds the Woodstock Generation openly showing affection in public versus their peers wearing uniforms and carrying weapons while in Vietnam. That’s followed by Garfunkel’s thoughts on how difficult and odd it is to take someone from America and force them to fight in a land and for a war that makes no sense or holds no allegiance. “I think much of what we say, if not all of what we say is extremely obvious,” is Simon’s response which also touches upon stopping the war, feeding the people and addressing inequality and the need to continually point these things out until they are resolved in a positive fashion.
In a foreshadowing moment Garfunkel contemplates leaving entertainment while Simon expresses his desire to expand as an artist.
As for the music, it’s pretty amazing what the duo put together as their relationship was disintegrating. From the South American influence on “El Condor Pasa” to the jam session feel of “Cecelia” and nod to early inspiration, the Everly Brothers with a cover “Bye Bye Love,” the material displays a burst of creativity that rivaled their peers in this country – Brian Wilson, the Byrds – and across the sea – the Beatles. And, of course, the gospel-tinged title track remains one of music’s most transfixing moments as Garfunkel’s voice combines with the subtly building arrangement and then collapses after its heart-breaking crescendo.