Good Riddance, by Rita Cannon
The first words we hear in Doug Hamilton’s documentary Broadway Idiot are are from Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong, as he solemnly intones, “There are people who like to do things the safe way, and that’s just never been part of my vocabulary.” It sets a fawning tone that Hamilton unfortunately maintains for the rest of the film. This chronicle of the creation and production of the Green Day musical American Idiot (first at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, followed by a run on Broadway) concerns itself less with the story of how it came together, and more with convincing the audience how fucking cool it is now that it’s finished. Feeling more than anything like a making-of featurette that somehow got stretched out to 80 minutes, Broadway Idiot has moments that are truly compelling, but they’re few and far between, and the filler will be pretty boring to anyone who isn’t already a rabid fan of the show or Green Day in general.
The thing Hamilton seems to find the most interesting about American Idiot is its novelty. A big fuss is made about how strange it is that a hardcore rocker like Billie Joe Armstrong should ever find himself on a Broadway stage. Armstrong and the musical’s director, Michael Mayer, as held up as polar opposites. Armstrong is a punk rocker from a working-class household in suburban California; Mayer is an upper-middle-class theater geek from Bethesda; therefore they have “nothing in common” and it’s a total anomaly that they would ever work on something together. I get that their backgrounds are different, but currently, they’re both rich middle-aged white guys who work in entertainment, so I think they have somethings in common. They don’t require an interpreter or anything.
The film is also weirdly enamored of the supposedly ground-breaking nature of American Idiot as a Broadway show. “It’s not your father’s musical,” Mayer insists. “It’s not Norman Rockwell; this is a picture of America today.” The idea of a musical in which disaffected young people swear and have sex to the driving beat of mainstream rock music is treated as a game-changing development, rather than a thing that’s been happening fairly regularly since Hair premiered in 1968. The assertion that “Norman Rockwell” is a suitable shorthand for what most other musicals are like seems willfully ignorant. You know Spring Awakening just happened, right? I know Michael Mayer knows, because he directed it. Furthermore, the idea that American Idiot – a jukebox musical based on a pre-existing property with an established fan base – could itself be viewed as inauthentic, “safe,” or even cash-grabby is acknowledged by no one.
The oversimplified narrative becomes even more irritating when you realize what’s being pushed out of the way in its favor: the actual stories of the people making the show, which are fascinating and moving when we see them. The documentary’s high point is a sequence in which the cast prepares to perform the song “21 Guns” at the Grammys, just ahead of their Broadway opening. It’s one of the only times Hamilton focuses on the nuts-and-bolts work of making a show, and it’s great. (Warning: If you are a person who tends get teary-eyed over great singing, you will probably cry.) Cast member Christina Sajous, who is making her Broadway debut and seems nervous and somewhat overwhelmed by the experience, makes a particularly strong impression, and could have been a wonderful figure to focus on if the film had any interest at all in what anyone other than Armstrong and Mayer were going through. When a major role is recast before the move to New York, it’s weirdly glossed over, with Mayer saying the new actor has “an All-American nature” that he feels the role requires. We never find out what the hell that means, much less how anyone else involved with show feels about it.
If you’re delighted by the idea of Green Day shakin’ up stodgy old Broadway with their totally punk rock ‘tude, then this doc will fulfill your every need. If you’re more interested in watching the process of a piece of theater become itself, there are countless other documentaries you can watch instead.