There's nothing that brings out your talent like hit albums," said Art Garfunkel at the beginning of Imagine's film about the making of Bridge Over Troubled Water. For a moment, this seemed horse before cart. How could an album that didn't yet exist summon up the talent that brought it into existence? But then it clicked.
Garfunkel wasn't talking about the subject of Jennifer Lebeau's film but about all the albums that preceded it. At the time they started work, Paul Simon recalled, four out of the five top albums in the American chart were theirs. The secret of Bridge Over Troubled Water, it seems, was the secret of many creative triumphs: complete self-assurance. As Garfunkel put it, "There's a certain freedom you get when you're sitting on top of the world."
If albums came with DVD commentaries, as films often do, this is what they would look like. Interviews with pretty much every significant person involved in the creation of the LP and a track-by-track analysis of how its songs came together. The advantage here, of course, was that they had the kind of soundtrack that can temporarily convert even the most dispassionate passer-by into a completist nerd, gripped by the minutiae of creation. I imagine it was bliss for Simon and Garfunkel fans (unless they knew all this stuff already), but it was pretty damn good for those of us who've simply absorbed these songs by osmosis – a dissection you could hum along to.
Roy Halee ("One of the great engineers of his time and a genius with echo") gave best value, explaining how he'd nearly given a security guard a heart attack when recording the drum track for "The Boxer" in the entrance lobby at Columbia Records. But there was good stuff from Simon and Garfunkel, too, the former still apparently a little in awe of what they'd done. "A shocking moment in my song-writing career," he said of the day when the melody for "Bridge Over Troubled Water" came to him. "I remember thinking, 'This is considerably better than I normally write'." To his credit, the Columbia boss at the time saw that this slow, almost hymn-like song was something special and backed it hard as the first single release.
As if to prevent hindsight getting too rosy, Lebeau had also interviewed the actor Charles Grodin, who directed a television special built around the album in the teeth of corporate nervousness about the duo's political opinions. An AT&T executive raged at "the humanistic approach" of the film his company had sponsored, explaining that sequences about black poverty were bound to offend their Southern affiliates. He was right: one million people had switched off by the first commercial break and the show was beaten in the ratings by a Peggy Fleming ice-skating special. Tellingly, Paul Simon seemed as proud of that fact as he was about the songs he'd written.
It's a moot point as to who will be most offended by My Transsexual Summer, Channel 4's new series about seven transgender men and women sharing experiences and advice at a summer retreat. The normality bigots who can make their day-to-day lives so tense? Or that quite sizeable demographic that feels guilty the moment a consciousness-raising exercise becomes remotely watchable? There will, I imagine, be a lot of anxiety about exploitation and voyeurism and it isn't an entirely specious objection. Even some of those participating expressed doubt about whether it was wise to expose themselves so openly to a world that, in their experience, had largely proved unkind and contemptuous. But in the event, it's only bigots who could feel uncomfortable watching. "I want to show my mum how happy I am. The world's full of colour again," said Karen, who had arrived hunched and self-loathing but left buoyed up by the support of the people she'd met. It would have been a bit tacky if they'd stuck "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on the soundtrack. But it wouldn't have been untrue.Reuse content