When director Doug Hamilton started poking his camera into the backstage business of American Idiot, the musical based on the politically charged 2004 concept album by Green Day, he must have been expecting the theater vets and rock stars to engage in some compelling head-butting. In fact, he pretty much says so in the press notes for the documentary that came out of that experience, Broadway Idiot.
“What surprised me, and I think everyone involved with the process, is how smoothly the collaboration went,” he writes, adding that the pop-punk trio’s “generosity impressed me, even as it frustrated me as a filmmaker in search of a story.”
Therein lies the problem with Broadway Idiot, a spirited look at bringing American Idiot to the stage that lacks a strong narrative to propel it forward. It’s the kind of joyful, behind-the-curtain account that will excite fans of Green Day and the energetic musical based on its “Boulevard Of Broken Dreams.” But as a stand-alone documentary, it begs for more conflict and a broader canvas from which to explore the contemporary theater scene.
Hamilton clearly took advantage of the extensive access he was given to the rehearsals, internal conversations, and recording sessions that took place while American Idiot was being developed in 2009 and 2010, first for California’s Berkeley Repertory Theatre and then for Broadway. As a result, he’s right there to capture moments like Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong responding to the cast’s melodic interpretation of the song “Last Night On Earth” for the first time After squeezing the knee of music supervisor Tom Kitt, Armstrong proclaims, with sincere bluntness: “That was fucking sick.”
The spiky-hired, down-to-earth Armstrong naturally emerges as the film’s protagonist, which makes sense, since he co-wrote the show’s book with director Michael Mayer, played the character St. Jimmy at multiple points during the the musical’s run, and serves as a relatable and unlikely Broadway convert. After initially expressing misgivings that American Idiot could turn into something “absurd” and “corny,” Armstrong ends up more at home among theater geeks than rock gods. “It became difficult to find kindred spirits,” he says of his friendships within the music industry after Green Day’s popularity rose, adding later, “It didn’t happen in rock ’n’ roll music. It happened in the theater.” At moments like these, Broadway Idiot feels a little like a really exceptional episode of Glee or Smash—which, for the record, is not meant as an insult.
Armstrong’s appreciation for a different kind of stage gives the film the semblance of a much-needed arc. But Hamilton could have probed more. Would Armstrong ever consider leaving music behind to immerse himself in the theater? Did his focus on the show cause friction with the other members of Green Day, who appear mostly in passing in Broadway Idiot? These questions are neither raised nor addressed. Given how candid the singer has been in recent interviews in which he’s discussed his issues with alcohol and substance abuse—a subject that’s core to the story of American Idiot—it seems like the film could have delivered a more incisive, affecting portrait of the real-life St. Jimmy.
Despite largely positive notices and Tony Award nominations, American Idiot’s Broadway run only lasted a year, which the film doesn’t comment on at all. Its short lifespan at New York’s St. James Theatre isn’t really a reflection on the musical’s appeal—the show is about to embark on a national U.S. tour, and is being adapted into a feature film. But it does say something about the state of Broadway, where buzzy, strong shows arrive all the time, then fade away due to financial challenges. Broadway Idiot provides an opportunity to explore that issue, too, but Hamilton doesn’t take it. Instead he offers a film that preaches engagingly to the Green Day choir, but doesn’t reveal the deeper struggles behind the scenes of all that behind-the-scenes footage.