Broadway Idiot: SXSW Review

Courtesy of Giant Noise
Billie Joe Armstrong, John Gallagher Jr. and the Broadway cast of "American Idiot"
This chronicle of Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong's adventures on Broadway is more conventional than the musical it follows.

Doug Hamilton's documentary provides an all-access backstage pass to the rock musical "American Idiot," inspired by the Grammy-winning 2004 Green Day album.

Not since Pete Townshend took an active hand in shaping The Who’s Tommy in 1993 has a rock musician infiltrated the ranks of Broadway with such exhilarating results as American Idiot. Based on Green Day’s epochal 2004 concept album of the same name, the 2010 pop-punk opera, co-written by Billie Joe Armstrong with director Michael Mayer, is tracked from development through to opening night and beyond in Broadway Idiot.

Efficiently directed by Doug Hamilton, a TV veteran who has worked on series such as Nova, American Masters and Frontline, the documentary premieres in SXSW’s music sidebar 24 Beats Per Second. It should find an audience on DVD and VOD among both Green Day fans and Broadway junkies wishing to relive the visceral excitement of the groundbreaking musical. And it’s a natural for tour-merchandise stands.

Making clever use of the iconic album-cover graphics as animation and onscreen text, the film captures the unique charge of the show, a hard-driving story of the tough lessons of youthful nihilism, set against a backdrop of political and social disenfranchisement.

Lively excerpts are included from workshop stagings, rehearsals, the 2009 tryout run at Berkeley Rep and the Broadway production at the St. James Theatre. In one of the best sequences, editor Rob Tinworth intercuts Green Day and the cast performing "21 Guns" together at the Grammy Awards with the number as it’s staged in the show. (That song, from the album 21st Century Breakdown, is one of a small number of Green Day compositions from other sources featured in the musical.)

For theater geeks, a key interest will be getting rare access to witness how a complex production comes together. This includes Mayer coaxing out a story and characters that expand on the narrative bones of the album; choreographer Steven Hoggett developing an expressive, thematically appropriate physical language; and scenic designer Christine Jones creating an environment for chaos out of 40-foot walls plastered with flyers, posters and graffiti and punctuated with windows and TV screens. Lighting and video-projection tests also convey the thrill of watching an elaborate theater piece take shape.

Perhaps the most illuminating insight comes from arranger-orchestrator Tom Kitt’s work on the score, rebuilding Green Day’s tunes for multiple voices and themes. Armstrong’s floored response upon hearing Kitt’s gorgeous wall-of-sound harmonies on "Last Night on Earth" for the first time is one of many warm indications of the mutual rewards of the collaboration.

The film also provides a potted history of Green Day, focusing on Armstrong’s soul-searching investment in the American Idiot songs. That aspect ultimately is reflected in his fractured recognition of himself in the show’s three male lead characters, as well as its angel of self-destruction, St. Jimmy. Extensive live clips of the band’s concerts include a 1996 Prague show and a massive 2005 London arena performance, with Tinworth effectively shuffling Green Day’s original versions of the songs with their incarnations in the musical.

A weakness of the doc is its failure to engage Armstrong’s bandmates Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool, whose input is largely limited to the occasional nod of approval. However, there’s plenty of Armstrong, whose appreciation for theater craft and embrace of the sense of community that blossoms within a Broadway company is one of the principal threads. Considering his freely voiced fears at the start that the show might have been "absurd and not relatable and corny," his unqualified endorsement of the material from its earliest stages pegs him as a complete convert.

Hardcore Green Day fans will likely be both aghast and tickled by hilarious footage of a cherubic Armstrong at age 11 in 1983, singing show tunes ("Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music and "Kids" from Bye Bye Birdie), schooled by his vocal coach at the time. Mayer and Kitt posit that those ingrained musical-theater seeds are evident in his Green Day melodies.

The film’s personal element generally lacks heft, however. While Armstrong speaks at length about forging the kind of close friendships in his brief theater experience that have somehow eluded him in his post-fame rock career, Hamilton could have dug deeper to show more visual evidence of that bonding. The doc is slickly packaged, but it suffers from the pat reality-TV feel of manicured sound bites where greater candor and fly-on-the-wall observation might have been welcome.

Perhaps the most eloquent statement of Armstrong’s connection to the experience is watching him step into the role of St. Jimmy during the Broadway run, which is covered in the film’s final section. Sharing the stage with his principal alter ego in the show (played by John Gallagher Jr., of HBO’s The Newsroom and another SXSW premiere, Short Term 12), Armstrong’s adrenaline rush seems on par with that of the wildly cheering audience.

Venue: South by Southwest Film Festival (24 Beats Per Second)

Director: Doug Hamilton

Producer: Ira Pittelman

Director of photography: Dan Krauss

Music: Green Day

Editor: Rob Tinworth

Sales: Cinetic Media

No rating, 80 minutes.