World musical talent orbits Paul Simon in MPT special

Let's face it -- any time we think of rock documentaries on TV, the automatic assumption is that we're talking MTV. After all, what other outlet would devote time and attention to the thoughts and words of mere pop stars?

Would you believe public television?


If not, then you'll be in for a shock Saturday evening, when Maryland Public Television (Channels 22 and 67) trots out "Paul Simon: Born at the Right Time" as part of its current pledge drive, because this two-hour special (beginning at 8 p.m.) has almost all the elements of an MTV Rockumentary: concert footage, interview clips, celebrity cameos, even a dab of controversy.

This is not your children's MTV, however. And no matter how hip "Born at the Right Time" might seem on the surface, deep down, it's as high-minded and value-laden as any PBS broadcast.


For instance, because the show uses Simon's last concert tour as its starting point, much is made of the multicultural make-up of Simon's band; in fact, the final credits list each sideman not by instrument, but by nationality. Yet even as filmmakers Susan Lacy and Susan Steinberg try to trumpet this as proof that Simon's music is world-embracing, their own presentation is maddeningly star-centered. Why use performance footage to set thematic segments if you're going to cut to interview segments whenever Simon isn't singing?

Come on, now -- if the band's contributions are so important, let's hear them. And what's the point of including a lengthy drum ensemble performance if Lacy and Steinberg are going to keep cutting away from the drummers to some unrelated Brazilian dance contest? We're not that easily bored, are we?

Maybe not, but "Born at the Right Time" seems to be. Most of show either celebrates Simon's current projects, or waxes nostalgic over his Simon & Garfunkel days. Granted, it's good to have a certain amount of historical background, but watching this you'd almost think Simon went straight from "Bridge Over Troubled Water" to "Graceland," with only a few "Saturday Night Live" guestspots in-between.

Worse, the show's treatment of his South African tour is cheaply dramatic and strangely superficial. It's one thing to trot out New York Times critic Jon Pareles to question whether Simon's borrowings amount to culture carpet-bagging, quite another to ignore outright the question of whether or not Simon's "Graceland" sessions in South Africa violated the U.N.'s cultural embargo.

Still, for all that's wrong and over-long about "Born at the Right Time," it does have some marvelous moments. Although most of the concert footage is marred by persistent voice-overs, the show does include a lovely (and mostly unmolested) rendition of "Graceland," as well as a wonderfully electric performance of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" before an audience in Canton, China.

Even better is the footage of Simon interacting with street drummers in Brazil and rehearsing with mbaqanga musicians in South Africa -- even if it is largely squandered on scene-setting. And anyone who could watch Simon's eulogy for Ladysmith Black Mambazo member Headman Tshabalala without getting at least a little teary should check to see if he or she still has a heart.