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When Paul Simon Bombed at the Movies

Last night, MGM+ premiered the first chapter of its two-part documentary “In Restless Dreams: The Music of Paul Simon.” (Part Two airs this Sunday.) It’s an exhaustive look at the 82-year-old singer-songwriter’s career—or, at least, the first chunk of it, starting with his days in Simon & Garfunkel and continuing through his solo years, ending around 1990 and the release of The Rhythm of the Saints

The documentary, directed by Alex Gibney, mostly focuses on the successes, but there are occasional peeks at the low points. One of them, many may not remember. In October 1980, Simon wrote and starred in a movie that wasn’t autobiographical but was definitely close to his heart, telling the story of a singer-songwriter at a crossroads. “One-Trick Pony” got mixed reviews and bombed at the box office, proving to be one of the legend’s biggest failures. 

For years, it wasn’t easy to find the film, with even the accompanying soundtrack (written by Simon) mostly known for its bouncy Top 10 hit “Late in the Evening.” But its mention in “In Restless Dreams” may inspire fans to seek the movie out. If you do, you’ll be greeted by a curious, muted little misfire that demonstrates that, no matter his prodigious talents, filmmaking and acting may not be among them. And yet, “One-Trick Pony” has this odd poignancy running through it—an acknowledgement of the path not taken by Simon, one in which a life in music was mostly filled with disappointment and heartache. Paul Simon is a superstar, but his onscreen character is far from it. “One-Trick Pony” is about Simon wondering how the other half lives.

It had been five years since Simon’s last album, 1975’s acclaimed hit Still Crazy After All These Years, which won the Grammy for Album of the Year. But in the interim between records, it wasn’t as if Simon was floundering. Memorably appearing on the hip new variety series “Saturday Night Live”—yes, of course, his turkey-outfit bit is legendary, but have you seen him play one-on-one with NBA great Connie Hawkins?—he soon became one of its most popular guests. He was also quite amusing in 1977’s “Annie Hall,” playing a corny L.A. music executive who lures Woody Allen’s singer girlfriend away from New York. That same year, he also released a best-of, Greatest Hits, Etc., which included a new song, “Slip Slidin’ Away,” that went Top 10. Things were going well for Simon.

What was also notable about Greatest Hits, Etc. was that it had completed his contractual obligations to his longtime label, Columbia. He signed a lucrative new deal with Warner Bros. and, as part of that agreement, Simon was itching to get out of his comfort zone. He was curious about making a movie. 

“I wanted to do something other than just record an album,” he told Rolling Stone’s Dave Marsh shortly before the release of “One-Trick Pony.” “I felt my choices were either to write a Broadway show or a movie. I chose the movie because I thought it would be closer to the process of recording. You get a take, and that’s your take. I don’t have to go in every night and see whether the cast is performing. Also, I could still record and use the movie as a score. But if I’d written a show, I couldn’t have recorded my own stuff—other people would have had to sing it.”

“One-Trick Pony” follows the struggles of Jonah, a mid-30s rock musician who, back in the 1960s, had written a generational anthem, an acoustic antiwar protest song called “Soft Parachutes.” But that was a long time ago, although Jonah is still out there touring with his band, gigging wherever anyone will have them. Unfortunately, his style of rock is losing popularity, as evidenced by the fact that a cool new band, the New Wave-leaning B-52’s, blow away the same crowd that was, before, only politely receptive to Jonah. (You can see why: Performing “Rock Lobster,” the Athens unit absolutely slays.) 

Things aren’t much better on the home front—that is, when he’s actually home. Jonah is separated from his wife Marion (Blair Brown), who not unreasonably wonders when he’s going to stop chasing a young person’s dream. Engaged in random hookups on the road, Jonah makes gestures toward reconciling with Marion, but it’s clear they’ve done this dance before, many times, and if it wasn’t for their young son, Matty (Michael Pearlman), whom Jonah loves dearly, he wouldn’t try that hard. With the possibility of getting to record another album looking iffy, Jonah is facing both a professional and personal reckoning.

As “In Restless Dreams” makes obvious, outside a similar penchant for romantic turmoil, Simon’s and Jonah’s life trajectories didn’t have much overlap. (In the late 1970s, Simon was dating soon-to-be-wife Carrie Fisher, leading to an endearing moment in “One-Trick Pony” in which Jonah and Matty go to the movies to check out the then-brand-new blockbuster “The Empire Strikes Back.”) But if Simon played Jonah, some audiences and critics would inevitably assume that he was the main character—and that, by extension, Jonah’s artistic frustrations and music-business complaints were actually Simon’s. Truth was, Simon didn’t want to portray the character—his new label, Warner Bros., pushed for that to happen. (If Simon had gotten his way, maybe his buddy—and recent Best Actor winner for “The Goodbye Girl”—Richard Dreyfuss would have taken on the role.) Eventually, Simon realized he had to do it.

“I didn’t want to do a film about music that I couldn’t believe in,” Simon explained later. “That’s the biggest problem I found with other [rock-related] films. They seemed false. Take [the 1976 version of] ‘A Star Is Born.’ It didn’t seem like a rock film to me. … You don’t really believe Barbra Streisand is a rock star. You always know it’s really Barbra Streisand.” The idea of having Dreyfuss, or anyone else, lip-synch to his vocals just seemed silly to him.

Simon was in a position where he could make such decisions. Even though he didn’t direct “One-Trick Pony,” he did have final cut (according to the 1980 Rolling Stone profile). And he got to choose the director, which meant that certain filmmakers balked at his invitation, figuring they wouldn’t be calling the shots on set. “I remember having a conversation with Alan Parker,” Simon told Marsh. “He said, ‘What would I do here? You wrote it, you’re starring in it, and you wrote the music. I don’t want to be a yes man. What would my role be?’ A lot of people, I think, had that feeling.” Ultimately, Simon went with Robert M. Young, who died last month at the age of 99. “His ego didn’t get in the way,” Simon suggested. “He saw room for him to function as a director and be of help to the movie and still feel that he was, you know, in charge.”

Up to that point, Young had worked mostly on independent films, like 1977’s “Alambrista!,” which chronicled a Mexican farmer (Domingo Ambriz) trying to cross the border into America in order to secure a better life for his family. By comparison, “One-Trick Pony” was a more mainstream project, even if it did somewhat reflect the New Hollywood era in its lament for an outsider facing off with an unfeeling society. And Simon took his lead role seriously, even working with an acting coach to play this unhappy artist who, ultimately, must decide whether he’ll allow his personal, rock-oriented songs to be corrupted by a shallow music exec (Rip Torn) and the flashy producer (Lou Reed, of all people) who are only concerned about getting Jonah on pop radio. 

The late 1970s was a prolific, if uneven, period for rock movies. You had acclaimed concert films such as “The Last Waltz” alongside disasters of varying degrees like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (a jukebox musical that featured Beatles songs but not the Beatles) and “Renaldo and Clara” (Bob Dylan’s spacey, nearly-four-hour melodrama that he wrote, directed and starred in). The same year as “One-Trick Pony” came out, Hollywood released cheesy musical (or music-adjacent) opuses like “Xanadu” and “Flash Gordon.” Simon’s old partner Art Garfunkel had made the leap to acting—he’s terrific in 1971’s “Carnal Knowledge”—but Simon didn’t have much on-camera experience. And unlike “Purple Rain,” which would open a few years later, “One-Trick Pony” wasn’t meant to catapult a rising star into the stratosphere—and use a semi-autobiographical storyline to achieve it. This was music icon Paul Simon playing a guy who most definitely wasn’t Paul Simon. And yet there was something about Jonah’s disappointing career that Simon envied.

“Not since I was a kid have I played in a band,” he told Rolling Stone. “It’s odd to have been in rock ‘n’ roll all this time and never really been part of a band. I was part of a duo—a vocal duo—and I played with studio musicians. So I was never part of that life in that way, and that is an essential part of rock ‘n’ roll. I only know it by being with people who are in it. But I never lived it.”

In “One-Trick Pony,” he lived it, sorta, recruiting an actual band to play Jonah’s group. (Simon diehards will recognize his frequent collaborator, drummer Steve Gadd, alongside legendary bassist Tony Levin and the late, great Eric Gale and Richard Tee.) But in one of the immediate signs of the film’s problems, the music that Simon/Jonah plays in “One-Trick Pony” is just okay. Lacking the sharpness and dynamism of Simon’s initial solo work from the early 1970s, the songs don’t exactly make the case that Jonah is still producing incredible work. And for a movie that’s so much about the artistic importance of rock ‘n’ roll, it’s striking how un-rock the tunes are. (As Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau put it in his review of Simon’s soundtrack album, “Like so many aging folkies he’s devolved into a vaguely jazzy pop.”) 

If “One-Trick Pony” was trying to suggest that Jonah’s creative heyday was long gone, that would be one thing, but the movie essentially argues that it’s the industry that’s changed, not our hero. That reading is backed up by something Simon said in that Rolling Stone profile when addressing criticism that he was too focused on the movie to make sure the songs were good. “I know how hard I worked on the music,” he said. “And I know what’s there in terms of melodies and rhythms and time changes.” 

This is not the film’s only limitation, though. No matter how funny he was in “Annie Hall” or “SNL,” Simon doesn’t have leading-man presence. His dramatic scenes with Brown are often awkward—there’s one moment where he’s meant to get angry that’s unintentionally hilarious—and he’s not any more convincing when Jonah encounters different desirable women in his travels. (Joan Hackett and Mare Winningham do their best playing off his drab, stiff demeanor.) It’s telling that, like Dylan in “Renaldo and Clara,” the only sequences that really work really are the ones in which the star is performing on stage—or when Simon interacts with the young, adorable Pearlman. In these scenes, Simon seems to loosen up—his discomfort and self-consciousness fade away. 

Simon’s ineffectual acting might have been less of a hurdle if it tied into the character’s depressive misgivings about the musical purgatory in which he finds himself. (One of the movie’s most cutting moments is when Jonah allows himself to be part of a 1960s-nostalgia TV special, alongside the Lovin’ Spoonful and Sam & Dave, all of them treated like has-been curiosities—exotic animals in a surreal pop-culture zoo exhibit.) But Simon’s script doesn’t lend much insight into who Jonah is—and his odyssey in the film isn’t particularly engaging. 

There’s a potentially great idea in “One-Trick Pony”: What does the life of a struggling, working-class musician, the kind who never gets movies made about him, look like? But Simon seems too removed from that reality to embody it. “One-Trick Pony” is so confused about the world it’s trying to dissect that, watching the film this time, I wondered if the wondrous B-52’s were supposed to represent everything that was “wrong” about contemporary music—while noble Jonah symbolized “real” art and rock ‘n’ roll integrity. (I’m not the only one: In a recent interview, B-52’s member Cindy Wilson admitted to having the same feeling regarding what their purpose in the film was supposed to be, saying: “He picked the wrong band! That was hilarious, the way that happened.”)

You can’t deny the empathy Simon conveys toward Jonah, knowing how lucky he is not to have met the same fate. Being incredibly talented has no doubt helped Simon, but even the most successful artists recognize the fickleness of the business—how an unwise creative direction here or a bit of bad timing there can fatally derail a career. So many folk artists didn’t survive the shifting musical climate once rock ‘n’ roll took hold. Which is why, with hindsight, “One-Trick Pony” might be best viewed as an unlikely companion piece to “Inside Llewyn Davis,” another tale of a poor bastard who never could quite get it together commercially. However, unlike the Coen Brothers’ soulful, darkly comic masterwork, “One-Trick Pony” rarely touches something deeper or truer about art, life, relationships, legacy and impermanence. Not that there aren’t great jokes in Simon’s film—casting the snarling, uncompromising Reed as the smiling avatar of artistic sellout was inspired—but too often “One-Trick Pony” is too superficially glum, too dragged down by a stagnant lead performance, to be a compelling portrait. Simon cares about Jonah, but he doesn’t really understand him.

And yet, that lack of understanding is what makes the film somewhat touching. Tracking down that Rolling Stone piece, I learned something: “One-Trick Pony” originally had a different ending before it came to theaters. While it seems perverse to worry about a spoiler alert for a 44-year-old film, I will just say that Simon’s initial choice of how to resolve Jonah’s struggles strikes me as either falsely optimistic or dully cynical. 

As the movie reaches its finale, Jonah is working on his new album, with Reed’s producer throwing on a lot of strings and saxophones to give the songs more commercial appeal. Naturally, Jonah hates it, although it’s an indictment of “One-Trick Pony” that I think those touches actually make the tunes better. (And it’s not like Paul Simon doesn’t incorporate horns and strings to his own material all the time.) 

But in the theatrical version, rather than continuing to fight the record label suits, Jonah does something else, leading to an ending that feels defiant and striking in the way so many 1970s American movies did. But it’s certainly not triumphant—if anything, it’s very much in keeping with this sad, beaten musician who can tell the deck is stacked against him. Also, I suspect it’s not something Paul Simon himself would ever do. 

He recovered from this film’s failure—just like, decades later, he’d recover from finally making his Broadway debut with the poorly-received musical The Capeman. One of the hallmarks of his hallowed career is that, no matter what, he has just kept going. What makes the failed, fascinating “One-Trick Pony” still haunting is it’s him, for once, imagining what hanging it up would look like. 

Tim Grierson

Tim Grierson is the Senior U.S. Critic for Screen International

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