Lately more and more lists have been popping up centering on the very best 'Rock' films in cinema. The usual suspects are typically listed but I rarely see any love or respect given to one of the most honest films ever made on the subject, Paul Simon's brutally penetrating and subtle ONE TRICK PONY.
ONE TRICK PONY was released in late 1980 to poor box office and very mixed reviews. The incredible soundtrack album was released at the same time and remains one of the most under appreciated and poorest selling of all of Simon's works. Despite Roger Ebert's rave review the film quickly sank into oblivion. Very much ahead of its time, I think if the film had been released just five years later it would have fared much better. Paul Simon, who hadn't made an album since 1975's STILL CRAZY AFTER ALL THESE YEARS, could definitely see something was happening to many of his peers from the 1960's. Simon had the foresight and vision to see and understand just exactly what the dark promise that the eighties held for many of the sixties most promising voices was.
"You always wanted to be Elvis Presley...and he didn't do a very good job with it either."
Elvis Presley's death in 1977 is a subject that is frequently brought up throughout ONE TRICK PONY. It's like a gigantic reminder that Simon's character Jonah Levin's dreams and life haven't worked out the way that he thought they would.
Jonah Levin is well into his thirties as ONE TRICK PONY begins and it's been a good ten years since he had his last hit, the anti-war epic SOFT PARACHUTES. He has recently lost his wife and son in a messy divorce and he spends nearly all of his time travelling with his band from club to club attempting to get across a series of new songs he has written. The band, and Jonah himself, are incredibly talented but they are out of step with the times and ae either opening up for new wave bands like The B-52's or playing to half empty rooms filled with people who only want to relive the past.
A freak oldies gig gets Levin a meeting with a slimy record company exec, played brilliantly by Rip Torn and he suddenly gets the chance to record a new album again. Matched up with a conniving commercial record producer, Lou Reed in an astonishingly knowing performance, Jonah and his band watch as his music is taken away and changed into something nearly unrecognizable. Jonah then has to make a simple choice...sell out or risk fading away entirely.
"It's better to burn out than to fade away"
-Neil Young, HEY HEY, MY MY-
Neil Young was, of course, along with Simon another sixties pioneer who throughout the eighties was subjected to the same sort of changing musical and cultural climate; his audacious THIS NOTES FOR YOU seems almost like some sort of weird continuation to the themes of ONE TRICK PONY. Sell out or fade away...
The most incredible thing about ONE TRICK PONY is just how honest it is. There isn't a moment in this film that doesn't seem real. Critics have pointed out Simon's inexperience as an actor and I suppose that might be a valid complaint but I quite like his low keyed performance. He looks like someone always just on the edge of exploding and I doubt that any trained or experienced actor could have managed to play ONE TRICK PONY'S unforgettable last moment better than Simon did.
To balance out Simon's inexperience director Robert M. Young surrounded him with two of the best younger actors of the period, Blair Brown and Mare Winningham. Both of these two fine actresses really shine in this film and it is a credit to Simon's script that he is able to allow so much complexity in these supporting characters.
The key performances though, along with Simon, rest with Torn and Reed as the representation of everything that had gone wrong in the music industry by the mid eighties. Torn is one of the great actors at projecting an undercurrent of evil. Behind that charming smile always seems to be lurking something slightly sinister. Simon's personal casting of Lou Reed was genius. Simon was aware that there were few artists around as uncompromising as Reed and he also realized that to be that uncompromising Reed had gone through as many obstacles as anyone in the business. Reed portrays the sanitizing producer Steve Kunelian as almost retitle like, he looks like he could shed his skin at any second for a quick buck. The interaction between Reed and Simon during the un-making of Jonah's track ACE IN THE HOLE provides the film with some of its most dynamic scenes.
ONE TRICK PONY'S most moving moments come when Jonah is interacting with his son and band. Unable to ever completely relate or give himself fully to the women in his life, Jonah only really comes out emotionally with the men in his world. One particularly notable scene with his band comes when they are playing 'name a dead rock star'...they go through what seems to be an endless list until finally someone regretfully says, "Elvis", to which Jonah just sighs sadly and says "Yea...he's dead."
The scenes with Jonah and his son are particularly inspired. Any kid who grew up in the eighties with a divorced family will be able to relate heavily to the scene where Jonah takes his son to see THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK or attempts to teach him how to play baseball. These moments have a rare intimate quality that raise the film much higher than most 'rock' films have ever strived for.
"He's got one trick that'll last a lifetime, but that's all a pony needs"
The main thing that sells the film though is Simon's remarkable music. He was entering a very different phase of his career after his incedibly successful chart run of the sixties and seventies. The album ONE TRICK PONY and it's follow up HEARTS AND BONES would find Simon performing the most introspective and at times heartbreaking music of his career. The title track, ACE IN THE HOLE and LATE IN THE EVENING are all rock classics and the band including the great bassist Tony Levin absolutely smoke.
Along with the album's harder songs are a series of slower mournful tracks that are among the best Simon ever wrote and they are all practically unknown. JONAH, LONG LONG DAY, HOW THE HEART APPROACHES WHEN IT YEARNS, GOD BLESS THE ABSENTEE and THAT'S WHY GOD MADE THE MOVIES all feature uncommonly good lyrics as well as some of the most insightful commentary imaginable on failure, separation and loneliness. When Simon asks, "Do you wonder where those boys have gone?" he seems to sum up a very complex question that an entire generation was asking themselves as the eighties were quickly burying everything the sixties had stood for.
"Halfway through, we begin to realize that it's about a lot more things than an aging folk hero. It is also about the generation that was young and politically active in the 1960s and now has been overtaken by the narcissism of the most brutally selfish and consumer-oriented period in American history. Many children of the sixties have been, of course, willing converts to the new culture of the Cuisinart. Others stick to what they used to believe in. In Jonah's case, it's folk music. Everybody's case is different."
-Roger Ebert closing his original 3.5 star review of ONE TRICK PONY-
ONE TRICK PONY remains unavailable on dvd. It was recently included in a list of possible Warner releases Amazon featured that could be voted on for release, but it failed to get enough. It is one of those films that seemed to immediately fall through the cracks, as did it's creator for awhile. After the incredible, but ignored, HEARTS AND BONES, Simon released GRACELAND...a work that lyrically was among the best of his life but seemed to confirm musically that Simon along with a lot of other people from his generation had lost the passion for the rock music that had previously meant so much to them. The last twenty years have seen Simon slowly getting that fire back in his music and his most recent album is his best in years.
Paul Simon rarely revisits many of ONE TRICK PONY'S songs live and the film is mentioned among movie fans even less, but it remains one of my favorites. The film's final images of a man who chooses to perhaps fade away rather than sell out are still as influential to me as they were when I first saw this as a teenager on home video in the late eighties.
Paul Simon is rightfully known as one of the most influential and important figures in rock history, I would say that the unjustly forgotten ONE TRICK PONY is him at his purest, and most challenging.