Sunday, November 13, 2016

1980 Week: One-Trick Pony

          Back in his Simon & Garfunkel days, Paul Simon wrote and recorded a tune called “Fakin’ It,” which speaks to the feeling many successful people have about being imposters in their own lives. The specter of “Fakin’ It” looms large over One-Trick Pony, to date the only film Simon has written and the only one in which he’s played a starring role. Although “Fakin’ It” doesn’t appear in the movie, the notion of being a poseur pervades the movie. On a superficial level, the film bursts with authenticity, because Simon plays a singer-songwriter and performs many songs that he wrote for the movie. Yet the layers of artifice are myriad. Whereas Simon emerged from a phenomenally successful duo in order to become a phenomenally successful solo artist, his character, Jonah Levin, endures a humbler experience. A one-hit wonder for a ’60s protest song, Jonah gigs in small clubs and delivers material his label doesn’t like. Therefore the movie’s antagonistic forces include not just the crass music executives who want to inhibit Jonah’s artistry but also Jonah’s bullheaded determination to follow his muse.
          Johah’s journey is believable and realistic, but Simon wrote himself into a corner. Had he told an autobiographical story about the travails of a successful musician, critics and fans might have eviscerated him for whining about life in an ivory tower. (That fate certainly befell Neil Diamond, who made his disastrous movie debut in a remake of The Jazz Singer about two months after One-Trick Pony was released.) By tacking the other way and telling a fictional story about a struggling musician, Simon invited accusations of condescension. After all, what does a guy collecting royalties for “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” know about privation? The damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t scenario is exacerbated by the sense of privilege innate to the film’s existence. Must be nice to write your own star vehicle and get a big-studio budget.
          If all this behind-the-scenes bitching seems tangential, there’s a reason to focus on backstory: The onscreen content of One-Trick Pony is so slight it barely exists. Jonah tours with his band, and the guys complain about rapidly dwindling paychecks. Jonah sorta-kinda makes amends with his ex-wife (Blair Brown). Jonah accepts a lucrative gig at a nostalgia show, bolstering his fear that he is, indeed, a “one-trick pony” whose best work is behind him. Jonah does some new recording with an asshole producer (played by real-life rocker Lou Reed) who tarts up Jonah’s simple songs with ghastly choirs and strings. Can Jonah reconcile his need for income with his quest for integrity?
          Some moments are quite interesting, with director Robert M. Young employing a sedate storytelling style that generates a strong sense of realism. Rip Torn does marvelous work as a callous record executive, and Simon fronts a hot band for renditions of solid tunes including “Ace in the Hole” and “God Bless the Absentee.” (The film’s best-known song, “Late in the Evening,” appears over the opening credits.) Additionally, the nostalgia-concert sequence features lively performances by the Lovin’ Spoonful and Sam & Dave, while the B-52’s show up in another scene. The problem, beyond the piffle of a storyline, is that Simon is merely adequate as an actor—everyone else is more compelling, except when Simon sings. So on nearly every level, Simon is fakin’ it: He’s not a real actor, he’s not a real screenwriter, and he’s not telling a real story. The irony is that One-Trick Pony doesn’t come across as a vanity project, but rather a sincere attempt by an important artist to explore the possibilities of a medium with which he is not familiar.

One-Trick Pony: FUNKY

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