Wednesday, January 18, 2012

One Trick Pony

By the time famed musician Paul Simon wrote and starred in 1980's ONE TRICK PONY, the whole affair, like its protagonist, seemed dated. That's a bit ironic, as the story concerns a once bestselling songwriter named Jonah who finds himself marginalized in a music business that is increasingly Flavor of the Moment. The Vietnam war was over, the peace and love Boomers had moved on and purchased Mercedes and Cuisinarts. The younger Boomers were listening to screaming punk rock and New Wave. Lyrics, so integral to Jonah's songbook, were barely noticed (or intelligibile). The venues Jonah plays nowadays are the kind where the half filled tables seat chatty singles and blind drunks.

ONE TRICK PONY is noble in its intentions. It involves us in the life of a man struggling for relevance not only in his music, but his family life as well; his wife (Blair Brown) wants a divorce, and his child feels neglected due to his father's constant touring. Jonah's band begins to have those "creative differences". The record company executives (played to perfection by Rip Torn and Allen Goorwitz) nod politely as Jonah demos a tune but then inform him that it needs a good "hook". When Jonah finally gets a chance to cut an album, it is only because he sleeps with Torn's wife (Joan Hackett). Once in the studio, a commercially-minded producer (Lou Reed, in perhaps the most hilariously ironic casting in recent memory) insists on adding a string section and back-up singers to the mix.

Oh so familiar, no? Almost every cliche in this sort of tale is covered in director Robert M. Young's film. That's the main problem. Of course, cliches are born out of real life. I remember reading Roger Ebert's review of COAL MINER'S DAUGHTER, also from 1980, how he stated that it isn't Loretta Lynn's fault that Horatio Alger wrote her life before she actually lived it. Granted, but the deja vu I felt throughout this film just made it seem so trite, so shallow. Maybe if I had seen it during its original release....

The events in ONE TRICK PONY likely echo those in Simon's real life in the mid-1970s (he did pen the script). He had had massive chart success in the 60s with Art Garfunkel and in the 70s on his own. Then, the inevitable backlash. Trends change. You may think your art is timeless, but...what you produced yesterday becomes nostalgia. What you produce now must be in step with current tastes or you are now a footnote. Early in this film, Jonah's band (Simon's real life collaborators, including drummer extraordinaire Steve Gadd) opens for the B-52's, quite representative of the "new style" of the late 70s/early 80s. Jonah peers through the curtain and observes the funky outfit as they prance and yell. It is foreign to him. It is not him.

Another problem with this movie is Simon himself. It would seem that a semi-autobiographical screenplay would lend itself to have the writer as the star. Unfortunately, Simon's performance is less than inspiring. He seems a bit adrift much of the time, as if waiting for a cue or a mark from the director and/or other actors. His work here is better than that of his former compadre in music, Mr. Garfunkel (who underwhelmed in CARNAL KNOWLEDGE and BAD TIMING), but not by much. The supporting cast, however, fares much better.

I had sought out this film for a long time. I have a strange curosity for films of this time period. That interest, and a vivid atmosphere, sustained me through ONE TRICK PONY, though not enough for me not to point out its failings. I also enjoyed Simon's soundtrack, insightful and catchy songs that were, both in this film and real life, not cashbox Top 40. But they are Paul's/Jonah's, without compromise. The (arguably) victorious final image of the film, also a bit of a cliche, will certainly resonate with any artist who's ever felt compromised.

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