Theme Song: This movie ties in with a Paul Simon album, so it’s non-stop Paul Simon songs. I’m not going to bother loading them because you can go check them out on iTunes.
Interesting Dated References: Record labels having so much money laying around they could throw giant bags of it at aging musicians for vanity-project films with soundtrack album tie-ins in the hopes they would make even more giant bags of money.
Best Line: “When you get to a certain age … rock n’ roll … it’s sort of pathetic.”
Social Context: I guess the same applies that was detailed in Interesting Dated References. These record labels used to have so much fucking money. Thankfully we’ve taken that power away from them.
Summary: If you’re into Paul Simon, you probably like this movie. After all, it was written by him, stars him, and has a soundtrack by him. In addition, it provides a semi-veiled send-up of his career in that it focuses on an artist’s attempt to transition from a 60s pop icon to a legitimate artist who is saddled by resistance from fat cat record executives.
If you hate Paul Simon, you probably dismiss this movie as an over-budget vanity project. Financed by Warner Brothers as part of their scheme to lure Simon to their record label, One-Trick Pony seemed devised solely to quench Simon’s urge to get in front of the camera after being agitated with Garfunkel’s successful attempts at acting.
If you’re indifferent to Paul Simon, well then you get a pretty clunky, traveling band road movie. Although padded to hell, there are still some good moments and good performances.
So One Trick Pony begins by showing Simon and his band making their way through an airport to the next gig. Simon is playing a character named Jonah who is a past-his-prime, 60s one-hit-wonder, trying to carve out a new image for himself as an actual musician with talent. His method for doing this is to play opening slot gigs for bands like the (at the time) up-and-coming B-52s. “Why The B-52s?,” you ask? Well, because they, like Paul Simon, were signed to Warner Brothers, who was trying to promote the shit out of them. If you’re in the anti-Simon camp, then I would imagine you’ll cite this fact as just another example of how this movie is commercial schlock designed to boost record sales.
The band plays their gigs, talks about life, and drives around a lot to the backing track of Paul Simon songs. Of note, the band is made up of some well-regarded session musicians, who include Tony Levin (80s King Crimson, bassist on 8 million fucking albums), Steve Gadd (drummer on 8 million fucking albums), Eric Gale (guitarist on 8 million fucking albums), and Richard Tee (keyboardist on 8 million fucking albums). I mean, these dudes are essentially playing themselves, and as a result, deliver some of the finest performances in the movie.
Paul Simon on the other hand is a bit awkward. His attempts at playing Jonah as an unhappy, Woody Allen-esque artist fall a bit flat. Even during the concert footage Simon seems a bit uncomfortable. However, as the film goes on, it either diminishes or I quit caring, because I stopped noticing, and it eventually started working.
Then Mare Winningham is nude, which you care about if you are over 46. She plays some groupie Jonah bathes with. Note I didn’t say, “sleeps with.” Once you have body hair, bathing with a member of the opposite sex is weird.
Jonah is estranged from his wife and kid. That’s called a sub-plot. All the band traveling grinds to a halt as Jonah returns home to spend time with his wife (Blair Brown, Altered States), tries to convince her not to divorce him, and plays baseball with his son. That eats up like 20 minutes, which is exactly what a sub-plot should do.
Jonah goes to run songs by some record company executives (including Rip Torn), and the secretary is Lou Reed (who was not on Warner Brothers). The record execs pressure Jonah to deliver the goods and ram it down, but he attempts to maintain his artistic credibility.
The best scenes in the movie happen in the tour van. Here the guys try to name off as many rock and roll deaths as they can. They even play for money. You couldn’t do this nowadays because everyone would be using their fucking phones to fact check and look shit up. The world sucks now. There’s a camaraderie going on, probably because most of these guys have played together in real life.
And so the trials and tribulations of the traveling band continue: Cancelled gigs, inner band turmoil, and random hook-ups with the ex-wife. Eventually Jonah resigns himself to family life, and almost gives up on music, but then…
He lets Harry Shearer and this wallpaper talk him into playing a “Salute to the 60s” gig, at which he’ll basically whore out his artistic integrity by playing his old material without his current band. No artist likes to do this, because they are delusional and think their new stuff is better. They are wrong. Artists should stop acting like anything they do is motivated by any type of artistic drive, and instead just admit they are attention starved and will do anything for money.
In an effort to pad things our for another five minutes, we are treated to a live performance by Lovin’ Spoonful, who play the entirety of “Do You Believe In Magic?” Then Jonah performs his 60s anti-war hit, “Soft Parachutes,” which is actually just Paul Simon doing an impression of some of his own early work.
At the after-party, Jonah offends more record executives, and beds Rip Torn’s wife (played by Joan Hackett). Then we’re on to more fucking music montages of Jonah connecting with his son. After much dilly-dallying, Jonah goes to sit down with Rip Torn to discuss his comeback album.
Look at this awesome fucking picture/painting hanging in his office. That shit’s great.
So it turns out Rip wants Jonah to work with this hot young producer, played by Lou Reed. On the way out, Rip casually asks Jonah if he’s fucking his wife or not. Real nice way to end a business meeting.
Once in the studio, the hot new producer (Reed), proceeds to step all the fuck over the band. He forces Jonah to add strings, sax, fucking choir vocals … all that shit. The whole time Jonah is all upset. Good thing Lou Reed is playing a character, because Growing Up In Public-era Reed shouldn’t have been telling anyone what to do.
So Jonah gets frustrated, goes and reconciles with his wife, and over a final closing montage, walks into the studio and steals his master tapes and destroys them in the street by throwing them as hard as he can. And that’s the end. We’re left to assume Jonah, fed up with the music industry and being pushed around, resigns himself to the domestic life. Or perhaps he keeps struggling, staying true to himself and his band.
All the actors and even Paul Simon do a pretty good job with what they’ve got. Director Robert M. Young (Short Eyes, Extremities) did what he could, and many of the shots are effective. In the end, One-Trick Pony probably failed because of the flimsy story and the extended music videos. The constant interruption of the narrative makes it hard to stay focused. We can blame Paul Simon for the weak script, I guess, but I’d place more blame on Warner Brothers, who probably rushed the script and insisted on featuring every fucking song on the album in the movie, which is ridiculous.
Poster and Box Art: The poster for this movie is totally mopey and uneventful. The logo type treatment, on the other hand, is awesome:
They took a much-loved, late-70s typeface and slightly modified it into a great logo. Nice job.
Availability: Available as a DVD-R through the Warner Archives. I’m still on the fence about this DVD-R service they offer. It still seems a bit overpriced at $14.95.