Frogs on film

Robyn Hitchcock's new record is a soundtrack to a film that does exist--yet doesn't

Two guesses as to how Robyn Hitchcock might describe meeting Oscar-winning director Jonathan Demme, just after Hitchcock's 1995 concert in upstate New York.

1. "So then he came backstage after the show to shake my hand, and he was just a really nice guy. We talked about getting together for a project."

2. "After the first set, the trap door to the dressing room flew back, and a race of smoke, of mist, kind of came up into the damp evening air, and Jonathan emerged in a sort of scaly green coat, with his wife looking delicate and alabaster, and his two friends, all lit from below like Frankenstein, and he offered me a ghostly hand."

If you picked the second quote (his exact words, by the way), then you likely own at least one Robyn Hitchcock album (and if you own one, you probably have them all--he's not a cult hero for nothing). You are familiar with his tendencies to turn the English language into a stream of sagacious gibberish. You take to heart his penchant for turning the most mundane event, such as meeting the director of The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, into sublime spectacle. For Hitchcock, there's nothing normal about anything. That's why he's so brilliant. And so fucking weird.

Actually, Hitchcock and Demme did discuss a potential collaboration that fateful evening, resulting at long last in a concert film called Storefront Hitchcock, which has been set for November release, but do not hold your breath. That a Hollywood bigwig turned a British oddball's stage show into his next labor of love was unexpected enough. That the project took three years to hit screens because of financial problems and distribution disasters, even with Demme at the helm, is simply disconcerting. And that Storefront Hitchcock thus far exists as a single print, with no advance video copies for the press--even hot on the trail of Demme's commercially embraced Oprah vehicle Beloved--is the hardest thing for Hitchcock to accept. The only slice of the project available is the soundtrack album, which hits stores this week.

"MGM are doing nothing to promote the film," Hitchcock says, via telephone from London. "At the moment, they're not even prepared to start making extra prints of it. So there will be no simultaneous release in 15 major cities like there should be. I very much doubt they're going to turn 'round and fund all that, but I wish they would."

He mentions the "nightmare world of distribution," but the film was plagued with setbacks from its inception. It took almost a year and a half before Demme and the film's producer, Peter Saraf, could round up a studio to finance the project. When they did find a studio, Orion, it was immediately bought and absorbed by MGM, which had so little enthusiasm for a concert film about an eccentric cult hero, they "kind of threw [the movie] back in the water, really," as Hitchcock says. There it still swims, gasping for breath.

Shot over a four-day period in December 1996 in an abandoned Greenwich Village storefront, the film captures a Hitchcock performance as a single, unfolding narrative. The stage is fitting territory for the oft-solo showman. His storyteller, troubadour approach to live shows creates a solid platform for those dense, surrealistic tales and observations he spouts between songs.

For the film, he stands on a stage with the windows as his backdrop. Behind him, through the glass, the city pulses on in its usual brusque way: Fire trucks blaze past, pedestrians whiz by on tightly wound business, though a few press their cold noses against the window to peer in for a moment. Hitchcock banters with the never-shown audience of about 100 ("If it weren't for our ribcages, there would just be spleens a go-go"). He plays a song. He banters with the audience ("I like to imagine a church full of carcasses"). He plays another song. And so on.

"The nice thing about the film is that it really is like seeing one of my live shows," Hitchcock says. And it's up to him to describe it. Thus far, the movie has screened only three times: its premiere at Austin's South by Southwest music conference last March, followed by showings in San Francisco and the Hamptons in New York.

"Jonathan didn't depict the audience, so if you're watching the movie in a theater, it's as if you're in the audience at the show," Hitchcock says. "And live audiences tend to respond as if it were a real show--they'll clap and laugh along."

Indeed, initial fan and industry expectations ran high--understandable given Demme's acclaim as both Tinseltown upstart and art-house craftsman (Something Wild, Swimming to Cambodia), and Hitchcock's status as discourse-inspiring (and -spewing) songwriter and performer. Demme had successfully tackled the stage-to-film format before with Stop Making Sense, a big-screen take on the Talking Heads' high-concept tour antics of 1983. As for the full-length Storefront Hitchcock, in the can for more than a year now, what started out as an agreement between artists to make a single video slowly morphed into something far more ambitious.

"He used to buy my records when he was a groover in L.A. in the early '80s," Hitchcock says, "and he would go and get dodgy English imports from some music shop on Melrose. Then the years rolled by, and he discovered I was playing very near his town...So we talked mutual admiration stuff, and I thought he wanted to direct a video, which was great, because he always records live. He films live, no lip-syncing, which I like. So in the end product, it's all there, happening. It's real, not overdubbed or anything."

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