THERE'S AN OLD episode of The Brady Bunch where Gregg Brady gets a contract from a recording company, but heroically abandons a promising career as a rock star because the recording execs compromise his style by electronic remixing. If you've seen it, or even if you haven't, don't bother to see Paul Simon's new movie, One-Trick Pony--Simon's version of the same story will make you yearn for Brady Bunch reruns.
The first striking characteristic of this movie becomes clear about a quarter of the way through--it may be one of the most narcissistic movies ever made. The story of a former '60s protest singer--played by Simon--trying to make it big despite the shallow commercialism of the recording industry, a large part of the movie is an obsessive and seemingly endless series of closeups of its star, who also wrote the screenplay and score.
The camera zeroes in on Simon's face for minutes at a time as he is sweating on stage, crying in the arms of his estranged wife, shaving, rolling a joint, driving, taking a bath (twice), and reflecting (countless times) with mellow but righteous indignation on the sorry state of the society that will not buy his bland music. The concentration of the camera and the script on Simon would be fine if he portrayed an interesting or at least three-dimensional character, but Jonah Levin is neither, and his colorless professional and domestic problems complement the monotonous musical score to make One-Trick Pony a very boring way to spend two hours.
The story of Jonah Levin unfolds on two levels, one of his career and the other of his marriage. An anti-war folk singer who had one big hit song in the '60s, he has since formed a band that tours small clubs and concert halls, playing a lyrical brand of soft rock similar to Paul Simon's more recent works. He yearns for and works to draw a larger following, but his devotion to his work, including weeks at a time spent on the road, has nearly destroyed his relationship with his wife and young son. The movie jumps back and forth from his Greenwich Village apartment, to scenes of concert performances and travel with the band, to meetings with those arch-enemies of creativity, the record company executives.
This sounds like the makings of an interesting movie, especially given the connections with Simon's real-life career, but in trying to weave together the dilemma of Jonah's private and professional lives, the movie touches superficially on many issues without clearly defining any of them. It becomes an amalgam of tension-filled scenes that often bear little relation to one another and that rarely reach any resolution.
TAKE, FOR EXAMPLE, the way the movie treats the conflict between Jonah's artistic integrity and his desire to make pop music charts. Jonah's view of his music, as interpreted by Simon, has none of the passionate devotion expected from an artist viewing his own work. When his first concert appearance in the movie is over, he receives a mediocre reception from a crowd that seconds later reacts riotously to the B-52s' performance of "Rock Lobster." The camera is positioned to show us the new wave group performing wildly onstage and Simon listening sulkily backstage, with the back wall of the stage dividing the screen. Aside from this bludgeoning camerawork, the scene fails because we don't know how to view the juxtaposition. Simon's performance here of the title cut is unexciting, and the B-52s seem to be putting on a great show. It may not have been Simon's intention to have the B-52s make his music look bad, but that's what happens.
What's more, for most of the movie Jonah comes across as such an even-tempered, passionless man that, as in this concert scene, we don't even know how he feels about the conflicts in his life. He seems to love his wife, but their confused separation, and his attempts to be more of a father to his son, look like Kramer vs. Kramer without the heart. The scene of father and young son shaving together is so old that it evokes more humor than emotion, yet Simon uses it, as if such banality could evoke even a sigh from the audience, never mind a tear. The same holds for the scenes with the recording executives; they are such cardboard bogeymen, and Jonah is such a stereotypically humble artist/hero, that the tensions between them cannot be depicted realistically. The scenes are simply unbelievable, and without realism in its favor, a movie like this doesn't have a chance.
All through One-Trick Pony, you get the feeling that director Young believed Simon's formidable reputation and following as an artist would make anything believable. The "live" concerts are extremely artificial because of both the perfect lighting and the flawless studio sound. Simon seems to be lip-synching his way through most of these scenes. The climax of the movie, where Jonah finally rebels against conformity, is sappier than the fight scene in Rocky, and less believable because Simon drops completely out of character. And finally, regardless of Simon's past musical accomplishments, the score in undistinctive, with the title song the only memorable feature.
Like the music, the story is vague, aimless, and often downright boring. None of the issues in Jonah's life takes on much significance. Nothing can be moving in a film where the dialogue proceeds on stilts:
Got any Percodans?
No, but I've got some aspirin in the bathroom. Why? What's the matter?
Pain, I've got pain.
No movie can offer such tedium in scene after scene and expect to grab and hold the emotions of its audience. It's a shame someone with Paul Simon's talent and knowledge of the music industry could not turn such a potentially interesting story into a better film.