Storefront Hitchcock

Directed by Jonathan Demme

at Facets Multimedia Center, through August 5

By J.R. Jones

When I first heard that Jonathan Demme had made a concert film of Robyn Hitchcock playing in a storefront on 14th Street in New York City, I pictured the British troubadour framed like a piece of merchandise, with some sort of amplification system piping his music out onto the street. He’d attract a crowd of passersby, the sort of folks who might never have heard of him otherwise, and by the end of the film they’d be enthralled, roped into his lunatic vision of humanity. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

For more than 20 years Hitchcock’s been painting surreal, often macabre pictures on a canvas woven from punk, folk, and psychedelia. Somehow he’s eked out a prolific career, jumping from one small label to the next and surviving an ill-conceived deal with A&M in the late 80s. But except for a couple of bouncy college-radio hits–“Balloon Man” in 1988, “So You Think You’re in Love” in 1991–Hitchcock has prowled the periphery of pop culture, eluding the wider audience his fans think he deserves.

In the mid-90s Rhino began reissuing his early albums, and after Demme expressed interest in filming his stream-of-consciousness stage show, Hitchcock landed a deal with Warner Brothers. His first Warners album, Moss Elixir, was a wonderful mix of chiming folk rock, dark acoustic balladry, and quiet menacing punk, and its songs would make up the core of his repertoire in Demme’s Storefront Hitchcock. But the director, who has a reputation for simple and stylish performance films (he’s perfectly captured the brainy fun of the Talking Heads and the quicksilver insights of monologuist Spalding Gray), took it as his mission to distill rather than boost Hitchcock’s peculiar appeal. My notion of what the film would be–and Warners’ probable notions about what it would do for their investment–was merely wishful thinking.

As it turns out, Hitchcock isn’t even facing the window. Instead the city street serves as a backdrop as he performs for a small, unseen audience inside, the occasional mystified pedestrian cupping a hand at his brow to peer in at the singer’s back. The film embraces Hitchcock’s obscurity: In Kirsten Coyne’s set design, stagehands pull a scrim over the window about a third of the way through, then it’s covered completely and candles light the room; when the scrim is parted again, the window is a checkerboard of multicolored film. At one point Hitchcock checks out the empty street and reports, “We appear to be completely unobserved.”

And he’s likely to remain so: In November Storefront Hitchcock played for two weeks at the Film Forum in New York, earning good reviews but drawing meager business. According to Hitchcock (who was in Chicago two weeks ago performing at Metro), MGM acquired the film’s distributor, Orion Pictures, and decided that a movie of a weird, middle-aged guitarist singing oblique songs and dispensing loony patter about computers taking over the earth wasn’t worth pitching even to the art-house circuit. Charles Coleman, who’s booked Storefront Hitchcock for one week at Facets, says he had trouble just getting a print of the film, not to mention a trailer or posters. Without a movie in distribution, the sound track sank without a trace last fall, and Jewels for Sophia, Hitchcock’s second studio album for Warner Brothers, isn’t nearly as good as its predecessor. With the recent resignation of Warners’ chief executives, Hitchcock might well be on his way out the door.

Yet some flowers wilt with too much sunlight, and facing Robyn Hitchcock away from the window might not have been such a bad idea. His songs have always been highly visual–it’s one reason his live act translates so well to the screen–and like the surrealist painters that inspire him, he seems to understand that the principles of mass marketing can only inhibit his art. Maybe that’s why he’s always shooting himself in the foot, making so many records of such varying quality. The major labels of the 90s are geared toward promoting a single “monster” album every two or three years, but in the 22 years since Hitchcock debuted with his first band, the Soft Boys, he’s released 20 albums and innumerable singles and EPs. The Rhino reissues collected a mountain of obscure bonus tracks, and Hitchcock’s recording sessions produce so much material that he often releases two different versions of an album–both Moss Elixir and Storefront Hitchcock have been issued in vinyl versions with different cuts. In all honesty, a fair amount of this stuff is junk, which can discourage all but the most rabid fans from taking a chance on his latest release. But the way I like to think of it, he’s amassing a large and adventurous body of work–from flawed sketches to outright masterpieces–for us to appraise and examine after he’s gone.

Any consideration of Robyn Hitchcock leads inevitably to the graveyard: few other songwriters have been so cheerily obsessed with dying and the mysteries of the afterlife. What might be called the climax of Storefront Hitchcock is “The Yip! Song,” which Hitchcock wryly introduces as a happy tune about death by cancer. As the song begins, Demme superimposes a simple title over Hitchcock’s left shoulder: “Raymond Hitchcock, 1922-1992.” The singer’s father was a painter and a writer, and Hitchcock intercuts the song’s ridiculous yipping chorus with subjective and highly charged images: “This old man, he was flesh / They wheeled him in upon a trolley / Vera Lynn, Vera Lynn / Draw a window on his skin….Cleanse us with your healing grin / Septicemia always wins.” It’s not the kind of sentiment that’s going to bump Runaway Bride off any screens at the multiplex.

“When you think you’re right about things, it can make you very bitter,” says Hitchcock late in the film, “if the rest of the world doesn’t happen to go along with your way of seeing things.” Yet Hitchcock doesn’t seem at all bitter–he’s earned the freedom to express himself as he chooses; he survived A&M and he’ll survive Warner Brothers. The film’s logo, which appears on the screen at the beginning and end, shows the title in window lettering, reversed as if we were reading it from inside the store. True to that conceit, a film that might have broadened Hitchcock’s audience has only confirmed his cult status. Yet van Gogh could never have imagined that his work would wind up on calendars, T-shirts, and refrigerator magnets. Storefront Hitchcock may have to close up shop, but maybe someday the rest of the world will figure out what was going on behind the glass.