Monday, October 14, 2013


Doug Hamilton's Broadway Idiot is the giddiest, most infectious, and uplifting documentary of the year. Granted, following the production of American Idiot from its conception to its Broadway debut, and climaxing with the stage debut of Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong, was a no-brainer.  A child could have filmed it with a smart phone, and it would probably be entertaining. But Hamilton, a veteran of PBS' American Masters series, takes the journey of a punk rock icon from the rock stage to the "legitimate" stage and makes it into a dynamic coming of age tale.
Hamilton keeps this film as riveting as a Green Day concert,  as absorbing as a typical Broadway documentary, and ultimately establishes Armstrong as one of the rare talents of his generation, a rocker whose songs can fit comfortably among the melodies of Tin Pan Alley. Some of the film's revelations are intriguing, not the least of which is that Armstrong spent part of his childhood in the decidedly non-punk world of vocal lessons, learning to sing by performing the songs of George M. Cohan and Stephen Sondheim (A clip of a 10-year-old Armstrong singing 'Send in the Clowns' is priceless). Armstrong's punk rock background is well-known to his followers, but one doesn't have to be a fan of Green Day to appreciate Broadway Idiot. And you probably don't have to be a Broadway buff to appreciate the titanic effort made to reinvent Green Day's famous concept album as a stage piece and haul it all the way to Broadway. 

There have been other attempts to bring real rock music to Broadway, and the results have never felt right. I generally blame the stage actors, for Broadway singers are too polished to approximate the grit of rock music. But as musical director Tom Kitt demonstrates in one memorable scene, Armstrong's music has something else in it besides rock & roll bombast: there are melodies and minor cords that recall songwriters from Broadway's illustrious past. Hard to believe? Believe it. Even though one critic described American Idiot as the cranky stepson of Hair, the show was a hit, bringing Green Day's music to a new audience, and introducing Green Day's fans to the wonders of the stage.

No one is more impressed than Armstrong to hear his songs arranged for the stage. His album was a nervy collection of songs bursting with youthful angst, and anti-war anthems, hardly the stuff of the Great White Way. But he grows teary-eyed during an early rehearsal, and his fascination for the theatrical experience grows. Cautious at first, Armstrong is inspired by the hard work and talent of the actors, and develops an unexpected friendship with stage director Michael Mayer. The impish punk rocker and the well-heeled "man of the theater" make an unlikely pair, but as Mayer says, "At heart, we are both entertainers." Still, it might be jarring from some to see Armstrong and Mayer hanging around a piano, discussing old show tunes. Gee, what would the punks back home say?

Armstrong confesses that the rock community is prickly at times, and that the theater community is more enticing than he'd imagined. As he watches the odd rituals of a Broadway opening, he seems like an intrigued tourist in a strange new city. Lamenting that Green Day's popularity has left him somewhat cut off from the camaraderie of his club-playing days, he's shocked to learn that the cast of a Broadway show provides what he's been missing: new friendships and creative challenges. When Mayer proposes that Armstrong step into the role of St. Jimmy, the show's dark id, Armstrong gamely rehearses with the cast. The result is astonishing. Not surprisingly, Armstrong's  turn as St. Jimmy is an unabashed showstopper. With a demonic energy that transcends whatever stage he is on, and the ability to write songs that capture the feeling of his times, Armstrong could be a George M. Cohan for the next decade of theatergoers.


I remember a dreary TV show called Thirtysomething.  It was about people in their 30s who were struggling with various "adult" issues. They wanted to be responsible, but they also wanted to smoke pot and dance a little, maybe flirt with someone at the office. They talked about their feelings incessantly; someone's feelings would inevitably get hurt; and every episode ended with hug. The show horrified me as a kid. Could people really be that dull? And since the show lasted a few seasons, it appeared there was an audience for such dullards and their problems. Now, directors who weren't even born when Thirty Something was boring the hell out of me, are making movies with the same navel-gazing, self-congratulatory feel as that dreadful show. Liz W. Garcia  brings us The Lifeguard, which feels like a 90 minute version of Thirtysomething.  According to the IMDB, she was approximately 10 when Thirty something was on the air, which gives credence to the old argument that children should be kept away from TV sets.

Leigh (Kristen Bell) feels bad. She lives in New York, and works as a newspaper reporter. After writing about a tiger that was kept as a pet and starved to death, she has some sort of crisis and flees the city. She moves back in with her parents, and takes a job as a lifeguard, something she did in her teens. Psychologists used to call this "regressing." In slightly less time than it took Stella to get her groove back, Leigh is having a sex fling with a 16-year-old doufus skateboard kid. He screws her in a public toilet, in the woods, anywhere at all. Apparently, it's a female fantasy to be treated roughly by a kindhearted kid (a kid, evidently, who gets his ideas about sex from bad porn movies).

Leigh, a poor misunderstood thing who is soon to be 30, is simply trying to revisit her carefree years. There are some complications, though. The skater kid wants to leave for Vermont, Leigh's friends think she's crazy, and Leigh's mother doesn't want her around. Much pot is smoked, and there are many dull scenes of Leigh sitting forlornly at the pool, absently smoking a cig, wondering what to do next. There's even a suicide, just in case you didn't realize this was a serious movie. 

Had the film been about a man, he'd be dismissed as a goofball and would probably be played by Paul Rudd. Instead, it's a woman, and Garcia feels  that giving up one's freedom to party is a woman's problem as much as a man's. Could be, but regardless of the lead character's gender, this is still a movie about someone who can't decide whether to grow up or spend another year acting like an idiot.

Martin Starr is very good as one of Leigh's friends from high school, a gay man who won't come out of the closet and won't leave the confines of his small town home. Mamie Gummer, as another of Leigh's friends, deserves a mention, not for her acting, but for her face. One moment she looks like Meryl Streep, the next she looks like Helen Hunt (the young Helen Hunt, before she had the life sucked out of her).  Amy Madigan plays Leigh's mother, but isn't given much to do but snarl. Anyway, Leigh's story about the tiger wins an award, and everyone hugs at the end.

Are we meant to like these people? Are their flaws and stupidities supposed to make them more "human?" Are we supposed to applaud when Leigh gets fucked in the toilet? I have no idea. I only know this: I haven't thought about Thirtysomething in years, and I curse The Lifeguard for making me think of it...


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