Stephen Holden

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Paul Simon's One-Trick Pony is a morose little art film about a minor Sixties pop star, Jonah Levin, who blows his only chance for a comeback by refusing to let a hack producer … "commercialize" him…. This moody, downbeat film is part road movie and part tribute to the Woody Allen school of Manhattan angst. Yet at its center is a question that Allen wouldn't dream of asking: Is the pop life just for kids? (p. 54)

One-Trick Pony's soundtrack album explains exactly what Jonah Levin-Paul Simon does, and its ten songs carefully weight the pros and cons of taking rock & roll seriously when one's well on the way to middle age. But Simon offers no definite conclusions…. Throughout the movie, Simon keeps the emotional lid screwed on tight. His anger at the artist-hating boobs and barracudas who run the radio stations and record companies is carefully muted. Instead of expressing bitterness at realizing that he'll never be another Elvis, Simon accepts his disappointment with sorrow and resignation.

The soundtrack's two major songs, "Ace in the Hole" and "Late in the Evening," illustrate what Jonah is leaving behind by "growing up."… These guitar-based, uptempo numbers (that hark back to early Simon hits) both go for the essence of the pop mystique….

In "Late in the Evening," Simon compiles flashbacks of the moments that made him fall in love with pop music: remembering his mother listening to the radio, his harmonizing on a street corner, and getting high in a club and blowing away the audience. Like Federico Fellini in Amarcord, Paul Simon compresses time so that such moments become simultaneous, and we glimpse the child inside the man….

One-Trick Pony may be the subtlest Paul Simon album yet, but it's not the easiest one to like. Its questions about music and the performing life aren't nearly as accessible as the themes of love, family and imagination that dominated the artist's earlier records—and you really do have to see the movie to appreciate the songs. Even the LP's two masterpieces don't reveal themselves readily, because Simon's so busy analyzing his spiritual commitment to music that we sense this commitment only sporadically. And I think that's the way he prefers it: it'd be out of character for Simon to lose control. Intellectually, he presents a very persuasive case for approaching the pop song with academic "seriousness." On his own urbane terms, only Stephen Sondheim and Randy Newman can outwit him.

Emotionally, however, Simon is always equivocating, substituting pathos for anger, whimsy for humor, tenderness for passion, analysis for revelation. He's too polite—or maybe too scared—to admit demons or angels into his art. This is where he and Woody Allen part company as film-makers, since Allen faces his demons head-on (as do such musical peers as Joni Mitchell and Neil Young). But Simon isn't willing to risk any emotion other than an ultracivilized, all-knowing nostalgia. One-Trick Pony looks back in sadness and wonders what it all was worth. Simply by raising the question of whether the rock & roll life is just for kids, Paul Simon admits that he's already on the outside looking in. (p. 55)

Stephen Holden, "Paul Simon Tells His Story," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1980; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 328, October 16, 1980, pp. 54-5.

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