Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
Palmer's film is that rare concert doc that isn't for established fans only.
Late in "Broadway Idiot," the documentary about the Broadway musical version of Green Day's "American Idiot," an onscreen newspaper review's headline describes the show as "a surly, cynical grandchild of 'Hair.'" The documentary cites it as an example of negative criticism, which was probably the reviewer's intention. I saw it as a positive comparison, a "like grandpa, like grandson" take on the similarities between the two musicals. Surly and cynical are common characteristics when you're young, and the Broadway incarnations of "Hair" and "American Idiot" spoke to the youth of their respective generations with songs about sex, drugs and war. Both were filled with language and ideas that curled the elders' hair, and featured hard-driving rock songs, personal narratives, and at least one hauntingly beautiful, bittersweet lament. I imagine "Hair" was subjected to the same "get off my lawn!"-style generation gap reviews when it opened in 1968.
While "Hair" opened the door for rock musicals like "American Idiot," the closer companion to Green Day's album is The Who's "Tommy," which was also transformed into a Broadway musical. Like Pete Townshend's pinball wizard tale, "American Idiot" is a narrative that tells one man's story through its songs. Its tale of the "Jesus of Suburbia" is lyrically constructed by Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong who, as "Broadway Idiot" opens, is about to take the stage to play a character he sings about every night in concert.
"Broadway Idiot" gives Armstrong a major role, but keeps its focus on the people involved with creating the Broadway show. Stepping back from Armstrong's debut, which will be seen in detail much later, director Doug Hamilton introduces the main characters of his film. He starts with Michael Mayer, the director of the "American Idiot" musical. Mayer adapts "American Idiot" after winning the Tony for "Spring Awakening," a freaky-as-hell musical adaptation of a sexually explicit, controversial 1891 German play. Mayer teams with Tom Kitt, who arranges songs from both "American Idiot" and Green Day's follow-up album "21st Century Breakdown." Both speak in detail about the process throughout "Broadway Idiot," with Mayer focusing on performances and the book (which he cowrote with Armstrong) and Kitt explaining the reasons for his arrangement choices.
With Green Day on tour promoting the very album he is adapting, Mayer and his cohorts push forward while waiting for a break in the tour schedule. When the band arrives to discuss signing off on the show, Hamilton creates suspense by showing footage of Armstrong listening to a different arrangement of "Last Night On Earth" than the one he wrote and sang. Editor Rob Tinworth cuts between the nervous singers, the band, Mayer and Kitt. "Broadway Idiot" shows the rarely captured moment when a songwriter hears his or her song through the conduit of another interpreter. Armstrong's verdict is profanely positive ("That was f#@king sick!" he exclaims), and the documentary moves on to the next aspect of show building.