Filmmaker Mike Leigh's biography of the landscape painter J.M.W. Turner is what critics call "austere"—which means it's slow and grim and deliberately hard to love—yet…
“One-Trick Pony” is a wonderful movie, an affectionate character study with a lot of good music in it, and it's being sold in all the wrong ways to Paul Simon "fans." True, you'll like it if you are a Paul Simon fan, but does Paul Simon have "fans" anymore? He has lots of admirers, people who follow his music, but they're not necessarily prepared to race out into the night to see this movie, as fans of, say, Bruce Springsteen might be willing to do. And that's sort of the point of “One-Trick Pony,” which tells the story of a folk singer who used to have a lot more fans than he does today.
It's ironic, the way the movie's ad campaign seemed to have exactly missed the point of the movie. Ironic, but not unusual. And never mind: This movie was one of a lousy film year's few good films, a work that knows exactly what it's like to be a musician on tour. Jonah, the character Paul Simon wrote and plays, is a person drawn from life. If you are or ever have been a regular at a marginal local folk club, you've seen singers like Jonah many times.
He was very big in the 1960s. He wrote one of the songs that became an anthem for that decade. His music was an anti-war rallying point. But the sixties are long ago. And Jonah has continued to perform more or less in the same vein. He still travels the country by van, working with a small band. He still writes and arranges his own songs. He is still very good, for that matter, but he's out of date. He plays smaller and smaller clubs, and back home, in New York, his wife and child are both growing up without him.
There is a point, this movie argues, when a singer like Jonah stops being a brave individualist and becomes merely a middle-aged man hanging onto an obsolete self-image. That's the opinion held by Jonah's wife (Blair Brown), who loves him but wants a divorce. Jonah is sort of willing to try a change. He begins to deal with a "hitmaker" (Rip Torn) who sets him up with an arranger (Lou Reed) who can almost guarantee a Top 40 sound.
The movie does an effortless job of teaching us this aspect of the music business. We hear various versions of one of Jonah's songs: first as it sounds in a small club, then as it sounds during a very nervous audition session, and finally as it is gruesomely transformed, violins and all, into a prepackaged "hit." During this period we begin to feel sympathy with a certain nobility in Jonah's character. “One-Trick Pony” never forces its points, but we begin to understand why his way might be preferable to success.
The movie is filled with interesting, sharply drawn characters. Allen Goorwitz is brilliant in a hateful role as an egotistical monster who controls radio playtime. Joan Hackett, as Torn's sexually adventurous wife, goes after Jonah in simple, lustful boredom, but ends up trying to be his friend, to explain the realities of the situation they find themselves in. Brown plays the singer's wife as a complex woman who, in her thirties, still knows and feels why she married this man, but wonders how long he has to prove his point before her life is sidetracked.
And Simon is very good in the central role. The movie has a lot of music in it that he sings well and with love, but it also contains some very tricky dramatic moments. 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.
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