Sometimes movies are about the big picture. Triple Feature traces a common theme or element through three movies to see what they have to say about each other, and to us.
In one of those almost-too-neat coincidences of history, in 1977, Elvis Presley died and the Sex Pistols released Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Sex Pistols. But even apart from those events, the late ’70s teemed with signs that one era in music had started to wind down as another began. For evidence, look no further than Jackson Browne’s Running On Empty, released in December of the same year. A concept album both in theme and execution, it consists of songs recorded backstage, in hotel rooms, in concert, and on a bus during Browne’s ’77 tour. All of them circle back to the same theme: Being a rock star can kind of suck.
This wasn’t a sentiment original to Browne. As early as The Byrds’ “So You Want To Be A Rock ’N’ Roll Star,” rock stars cast a jaundiced eye toward their own stardom and the machinery that brought them there. (See also: Head.) But in ’77, a generalized sense of exhaustion had set in among musicians and fans of a certain age. The King was dead. The revolution didn’t happen. The Eagles set the tone for years of hits with 1972’s “Take It Easy,” with its “Let’s just don’t give a fuck anymore, okay?” message. But surrender stirs discontent, and Browne, who co-wrote “Take It Easy” with Glenn Frey, used a string of 1970s albums to give voice to anyone wondering why their generation didn’t live up to its potential. In ’65, Browne was 17, as anyone who has heard Running On Empty’s title track knows. In ’66, he was already a professional songwriter. In ’76, he was a successful rock star, and a widower, following the suicide of his first wife. In ’77, Browne mixed a generation’s sense of its own failure, his grief and unease with his success, and the exhaustion of touring into an album particular to his situation, but embraced by the record-buying public.
Everyone carries their own personal pain and joy; artists who share theirs with the world need to make others feel as if that joy and pain could be their own. Still, what a tricky feat, getting the masses to feel sorry for a wealthy rock star. Running On Empty works in part because Browne doesn’t skimp on the details—or, in several instances, because he uses songs from other songwriters that don’t skimp on the details. One track, “The Load-Out,” stops just short of detailing every line of Browne’s concert rider and what his roadies liked for breakfast.
Hopeless introspection wasn’t what rock ’n’ roll was supposed to be about, but by the end of the ’70s, it’s what a lot of rock ’n’ roll had become. Running On Empty helped usher rock’s old guard into a new, self-reflective phase. Pink Floyd blew the horrors of rock stardom up to operatic proportions with The Wall, another intensely personal work that nonetheless struck a chord with fans. The rock ’n’ roll films of the era reflect the shift as well, trading in the boundless energy of A Hard Day’s Night for mythmaking (The Buddy Holly Story), ’60s flashbacks (Hair), and pointless nostalgia (Beatlemania: The Movie). Paul Simon’s little-seen debut as a screenwriter and leading man—and his only attempt to fill either role to date—the 1980 film One Trick Pony, plays like a direct extension of Running On Empty. Though it focuses on a character operating in the minor leagues of music stardom, it draws from the same road-weariness and exhausted idealism and lets the two feelings mingle until they become interchangeable.
Simon plays Jonah Levin, a sort of alternate-universe, much-less-successful Paul Simon who had one major hit in the 1960s, an anti-Vietnam War protest song called “Soft Parachutes.” Levin has hung on as a barely profitable touring act ever since. That’s taken its toll, breaking up Levin’s marriage to Marion (Blair Brown) and making him an only-occasional presence in his son’s life. Marion thinks rock ’n’ roll is kids’ stuff, a notion seemingly confirmed by the ill-fitting red baseball cap Simon’s character wears for much of the movie, and the way director Robert M. Young keeps framing his diminutive star against his towering bandmates, played by veteran studio musicians like Tony Levin and Eric Gale.
One Trick Pony is, not surprisingly, filled with performance sequences. The first comes at a Cleveland club, where Levin’s band opens for a group the next day’s newspaper review dubs “the latest darlings of the new wave of rock that is sometimes called ‘punk’,” The B-52s.” The review is less kind to Levin—largely, it’s implied, because he’s fallen out of fashion, which the critic seems to regard as the same thing as running out of inspiration. Maybe the critic is right. Levin looks like he’s enjoying himself when he plays, but not that much. He works up a sweat, then sulks backstage when he hears how much better the crowd likes the headliners. He gets to sleep with a young cocktail waitress played by Mare Winningham—even low-level stardom has its compensations—but has to listen to her sing “Me And Bobby McGee” as they lounge in a post-coital bath.
Clearly it’s time to get serious about having another hit or get busy doing something else, and much of One Trick Pony concerns Levin’s attempts to crawl back into the music game without compromise. That means performing an awkward audition for an easily distracted label head (Rip Torn) and a radio exec with “AM ears” (Allen Garfield). Then, after blowing it and scoring a second chance by sleeping with the label head’s wife (Joan Hackett)—as a screenwriter, Simon of course decided his character should be sexually irresistible—it means putting up with a scowling producer (Lou Reed) who wants to layer Levin’s pure sound with trendy strings and oodles of backup vocals. Levin can live in the past (one of the film’s most memorable sequences has him performing at a “Salute To The ’60s Concert” at a radio-and-record convention alongside Sam & Dave, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and Tiny Tim), sell out and embrace the future, or keep grooving his way into oblivion.
One Trick Pony is a smart, insightful movie about the business of being a rock star without being a particularly good movie. Simon is better with lyrics than dialogue, and far more charismatic a singer than an actor. The film quickly turns into a feature-length mope. But it’s a mope from a man who recognizes that it’s as much good fortune and smart timing as talent that kept him from meeting the same fate as his alter ego. Simon got out of folk before folk faded, put his personal spin on the singer-songwriter pop of the early ’70s, then kept finding interesting new sources for inspiration. Other artists didn’t. Some chugged along. Some got lost along the way, victims of changing tastes and audience expectations by listeners who had become, in the words of Roger Ebert’s review of the film, “willing converts to the new culture of the Cuisinart.” Maybe meaningful music was just another style that flourished and faded, as styles always do.
One Trick Pony is prescient, too. The tacky production touches the label pushes on Levin look positively Steve Albini-like compared to the airless trends to come. With few exceptions, Simon among them, the ’80s did no favors to most rock legends. Neil Young, for one, barely stumbled through, rescuing a mostly lost decade with the landmark Freedom album in 1989. Bob Dylan did some of his worst work that decade as well. That’s partly due to a lack of inspiration, partly due to a habit of leaving some of his best songs on the cutting-room floor, and partly because of unkind production. Dylan’s 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded—a low point that happens to contain one of his greatest songs, the epic “Brownsville Girl”—opens with the sound of drums that sound nothing like drums. So it went for 10 long years.
For rock stars, soldiering on often means embarrassing yourself. But changing times also provide chances for reinvention, and few know that better than Dylan. By 2003, Dylan had been the voice of a generation, a folkie turncoat, a high-functioning speed freak, a recluse, a protest singer (again), a born-again Christian, a wash-up, a Wilbury, and a comeback story, among other roles. As the millennium turned, he took on the persona he’s kept to this day: wizened cipher from some indeterminate time before.
It seemed as good a time as any to co-write and star in Masked And Anonymous, the feature directorial debut of Larry Charles, then a veteran of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, later to helm Borat and Brüno. Dylan plays Jack Fate, a famed rock star let out of prison in time to headline a benefit concert staged by a blue-tuxedo-clad John Goodman, who plays a sleazy promoter named Uncle Sweetheart. The concert is designed to benefit the government of what appears to be a poverty-stricken Third World dictatorship, but may be some alternate-universe American dystopia. (One of the best jokes comes in the credits, which reveal that Charles shot the film entirely within Los Angeles.)
There’s a lot going on in Masked And Anonymous. That’s a polite way to say it’s a huge mess. But it’s also a fascinating mess, featuring Jeff Bridges, Penélope Cruz, Angela Bassett, Mickey Rourke, Luke Wilson, Val Kilmer, and others, folks who almost certainly wouldn’t have shown up if it were a film by, say, Huey Lewis. (Well, Kilmer might have.) At its best, it has the cryptic wit of some of Dylan’s lyrics. Greeting Fate after a long absence, Sweetheart says “You’re all skin and bones.” Fate’s reply: “Aren’t we all?” More representative: Lines like “Life is the meaning of life.” At its worst, Masked And Anonymous feels like a vanity project. But it’s a corrosive vanity project born of frustration. (Dylan went down a similar road earlier with the high-concept concert film Renaldo & Clara, which sounds nutty and appropriate for this column, but I’ve never been able to track down a copy.)
In one of the strangest scenes, Bridges’ reporter character regales Fate with a monologue that teases him for missing Woodstock while talking about Gene Pitney and Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” It makes little sense on the surface, but the subtext is clear: The singer has fallen short. Later, a mother introduces her daughter to Fate by telling him she’s memorized the words to all his songs. He replies “Why would she do that?” Expectations weigh heavily on him: expectations that he do the right thing. That his songs mean as much as his listeners think they mean. That they mean anything. It’s a lot for one man to carry, and enough to make anyone—as Dylan has done, and as his alter-ego does here—retreat behind the label of “mere entertainer,” a label that’s never mask enough.
Then again, maybe it isn’t the punishment of the road or the slow erosion of ideals or the way mere singers get overloaded with others’ dreams and converted into useful commodities that makes being a rock star suck. Maybe it just sucks to be a rock star. It certainly looks like no way to live based on The Rose, a film about the last days of a Janis Joplin-like rock star played by Bette Midler. The title track, which plays over the closing credits, became an inescapable soft-rock hit for Midler in 1979, but it gives no sense of the film’s brutal intensity, or the lengths to which Midler goes to stretch out of her comfort zone as a singer and actor.
Midler was, and remains, a throwback, an unapologetically theatrical performer in love with yesterday’s styles. She first found stardom in gay bathhouses, her era’s equivalent to a cabaret. (It’s no coincidence that she once dueted with Tom Waits.) Her earliest hits included a cover of the Andrews Sisters’ “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” and she doubtless would have had a busy career as a supporting player in Hollywood’s golden age. But Midler didn’t want to be a supporting player in any era, and with The Rose, her first film role of any significance, she threw herself into the role of a self-destructive blues belter whose aggressive personality shielded an aching vulnerability, but just barely.
Midler gives a big, showy performance but the role demands no less, and director Mark Rydell, working with cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, counters by refusing to underline the performance. It’s a film with many close-ups, but one that keeps a respectful distance, never telling audiences what to feel about Midler’s Mary Rose Foster, who’s become known simply as “The Rose” as she hurtles herself toward the grave. When not performing with a gut-wrenching intensity far removed from Midler’s usual controlled style, or begging her pitiless manager (Alan Bates) to give her some time off, she drinks, carouses, and begins a whirlwind affair with a chauffeur (Frederic Forrest). Their time together turns into a running, oblique, stream-of-conscious commentary about where she comes from and why she does what she does.
The answer to the first question is simple: the middle of nowhere. The answer to the second is more complex: The film opens with a halting, onstage monologue about falling in love with the blues after hearing Furry Lewis. But performing alone, even in her exhausting-to-watch style, can’t satisfy her needs. The chauffeur isn’t the first man—or woman—she’s torn through and worn out, and wanting to put the past behind her while still proving everyone who ever doubted her wrong, Rose places unreasonable expectations on the hometown show she hopes will be her last for a while.
She turns out to be right for all the wrong reasons, but the film plays her death less like a classic tragedy than a catastrophe set in motion years ago. Onstage, she’s adored, but she needs a deeper sort of confirmation. Returning to a five-and-dime she frequented as a child, Rose becomes enraged when the owner who used to sell her Moon Pies and Dr. Pepper doesn’t recognize her or know about her music career. Dropping in at a local roadhouse, she can’t perform with the band without a barfly reminding her she once let herself get passed around by the football team. Alone in a parking lot, she screams, “Where’s everybody going?” She’s rarely sober, yet never out of it enough to forget her own isolation.
She’s succumbed to every professional hazard of her trade: loneliness, exhaustion, chemical dependency, and an ever-deepening love/hate relationship with the limelight. The Rose captures the effects of those hazards in their terminal stages. Midler puts flesh and blood into the performance as the film rolls toward its conclusion, remaining as helpless to rescue her as fans of the real Joplin (or Jimi Hendrix, or Elvis, or Jim Morrison, or anyone else) were as they watched their heroes self-destruct. In a long—in length and distance—shot toward the end, Rose prepares a fix in a phone booth near her high school’s football field, a moment the film treats as the completion of a vicious circle. Whether it’s the life she’s chosen or the life chosen for her, it isn’t much of a life at all.
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