Broadway Idiot, which documents the adaptation of Green Day’s acclaimed album American Idiot into a stage musical, tries to gin up some tension by proposing a divide between rock and legitimate theater that hasn’t really existed for 20 years. Ever since The Who’s Tommy took Broadway by storm in April 1993, producers have been trying to recycle boomer musical staples into money-minting shows, and the Green Day album, which reaches back to both the Who and the Clash, is the most palatable brand of punk rock around. The show’s director, Michael Mayer, whose talking-head interviews function as a sort of hectoring narration, hastens to set up the moment when Billie Joe Armstrong, the band’s songwriter and front man, will first hear the new arrangements of his tunes. The band members arrive at the rehearsal studio and sit in folding chairs as the cast perform an angelic choral arrangement of the ballad “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” A camera pushes into Armstrong’s face to capture his reaction, and he has the poise to oblige them without surrending the rolling tear Mayer probably wanted.
Like Mayer and the show’s producers, documentary maker Doug Hamilton can’t go too far wrong because American Idiot is such a killer collection of songs; whether we’re hearing the original 2002 recording, live footage of Green Day performing it for a UK stadium crowd in 2005, or the cast tearing through the songs in chorus, the music propels the movie. The interview sequences are another matter: before long they turn into an endless circle jerk as Mayer soaps up Armstrong, actors gush over what American Idiot meant to them, and Armstrong talks up their work, expressing his excitement and professional respect. I couldn’t afford to see American Idiot when it played at the Oriental Theatre, but from what appears onscreen, I’m guessing it had the same problem of tanking every time the music stopped. Played out before a razzle-dazzle set of TV screens, punk flyers, graffiti, and whatnot, it appears to be a hackneyed tale of three friends going their separate ways in life (one a soldier, one a junkie, one a family man), with a lot of fist pumping and Generation X self-pity.
By far the most revealing moment of the documentary is the little home-video snippet of Armstrong, age 11, singing “Kids” from the old Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie (“Why can’t they be like we were, perfect in every way? / What’s the matter with kids today?”). From age four to 14, the budding punk rocker studied voice, and his mother would take him to nursing homes and so forth to sing show tunes. Shortly after this clip, Armstrong gathers around a piano in the St. James Theatre with Mayer and arranger Tom Kitt, who plays “When September Ends” and segues easily into “What I Did for Love” from A Chorus Line. Eventually Armstrong gets absorbed into the little company, even going so far as to join the show for a week in a supporting role. His conversion to the intimate, transient friendships of the theater world proves there’s no thick black line separating it from the rock world, though the interviews with his new collaborators—like most stage-musical performers, greedy for attention and perpetually overselling themselves—make you wish there were.