In 1977 Paul Simon appeared as a record producer in Woody Allen's classic comedy Annie Hall. It seems almost as though he ran home from that brief appearance and decided to write his own film. A soundtrack album appeared first, and then in 1980, the silver screen lit up with the glow of Paul Simon's One Trick Pony. I remember the anticipation as I waited for it to reach a theater in Hamilton, Ontario. It finally arrived, and I rushed out to see it on opening night! Me and another couple who sat way over on the other side of the theater. I knew the songs from listening to the album. I nodded my head, tapped my foot. They, sadly, did not. They left early. Recently, however, I discovered a previously viewed copy of the film on VHS. It was in, near-mint condition, and I bought it for under $5. This week, I watched it again.
The movie, according to a quote on the box from the author and star, "is a lot about what happened to my generation. Somewhere in your early 30s you start noticing that the garment of your youth is becoming frayed. What do you do then? It's a crucial time and only the very few come through it." Hmmm. Is that so?
The movie is in fact about Paul Simon's generation. It deals with some things that Simon would understand quite well. The ups and downs of the record industry; the make-up and break up of a band; separation from home, your wife, your child; and the strange way that music has of being an art form and a business at the same time. This is perhaps the key to Simon's film. Simon plays band leader, songwriter Jonah Levin. As a folk singer in the 60s he had a hit record called "Soft Parachutes" but he has progressed far from those early acoustic days to performing with a funky near-jazz band, and writing songs which describe life on the road and are based on rhythm rather than the finger-picked political material of his early career. The band is reduced to opening for the B-52s, and is booked into halls which are boarded up when they arrive.
There is an honest and real interplay between the band members, much of which comes from the fact that they are played by Simon's band of the day. Eric Gale (guitar), Richard Tee (keyboards and vocals), Tony Levin (bass) and Steve Gadd (drums) are absolutely convincing as the band members. Their comic interplay in the van as they play another round of "Dead Rock Stars" is especially touching, since Tee passed on in 1993, and Gale died in 1994. You can play this game throughout the film, as there are cameos by other musicians including the B-52s, the Lovin' Spoonful and Tiny Tim [RIP Tim, Zally and Ricky Wilson]. Simon's performance is more problematic. He has the weight of the whole film on his shoulders, and not enough personal charm to carry it. He is convincing and even sympathetic in the first half, but his mannerisms grate and he becomes as distant to the audience as he has to his film wife by movie's end. His sarcasm and self-destructive attitude frustrates a viewer who wants to be be able to root for his success.
The Hollywood crew are dependable and solid. Rip Torn plays Walter Fox (a Walter Yetnikoff style record label executive; and the late Joan Hackett is his sultry provocative wife, who entices Jonah/Simon into a brief fling. Allen Goorwitz is a believable AM radio promoter, who Simon insults at every opportunity. Blair Brown appears as Jonah's long-suffering wife; and Mare Winningham plays a Janis Joplin-loving groupie. The scene in the bathtub as she sings "Me & Bobbie McGee" to Jonah is relaxed and beautifully authentic. The one surprise bit of casting, is of Lou Reed as a Phil Spectorish producer who ends up being the villain of the piece as he attempts to provide the Levin Band with a hit, but overdubbing their funky guitar-based sounds with strings, saxophones and chick singers! Actually, his version didn't sound half bad. Lou is convincing enough but fairly colorless.
This film died a quick death. Simon's reputation allowed it to happen, and then he was out of the movie business. I'd like to see a DVD version someday, with commentary and a review of all these careers. The film was packed with talent and possibilities. The musical sequences are immediate and captivating. The plot has a lot going for it, and certainly Simon's insider knowledge adds a ring of truth to it all. Many contemporary reviews blamed its failure of Simon's "lack of appeal as a leading man." On the other hand, that's what made the musical scenes so good! They were playing those instruments! This is a slice of 70s life. He gets the settings right, he gets the music right, the people right, everything fits...but somehow it all adds up to less than the sum of its parts. Too bad. Maybe he's a One Trick Pony after all.