Frogs on film

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.

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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."

Storefront Hitchcock may be a welcome gem for Demme fans who prefer the director's esoteric fare to his blockbusters, and a windfall for Hitchcock fans who rarely glimpse the man in person. But until the film jumps to video, which may take a year or more, the soundtrack album will have to create its own wake.

Hitchcock's devoted flock, the kind of fans who dedicate tattoos and Web sites and their children's names to their flora-and-fauna-obsessed hero, should be thrilled with whichever configuration lands in their hands. The 12-song CD, with about eight or so "verbals" scattered among them, isn't so much a distillation of Hitchcock's two-decade career as it is a snapshot of what he was up to at the time the film was shot. Demme's primary interest was Moss Elixir, the album Hitchcock was promoting when Demme first introduced himself to the musician.

"But I had written some new songs too, and kept them simple so that they would sound good without overdubs," Hitchcock says. "Hence '1974' and 'Let's Go Thundering' and 'I Don't Remember Guilford.' As for 'The Wind Cries Mary,' the [Jimi] Hendrix song, I'd been doing that for years. I had a little gap in the middle of the filming, half an hour where I could do what I liked. So I recorded songs that weren't on the schedule. But the only one of those that made it into the movie was 'Guilford'--that's at the end of it."

"Guilford" makes it onto the CD as well, and the spare, rolling tune epitomizes the record's strength. Hitchcock's voice is clear and meditative, often soaring above the warm acoustic guitar that supports it. His tuneful hooks are stronger than ever, and every lyric strikes air with relaxed, unapologetic flair: "It's in the past, it's in the bracken / Did something happen? / The sky just blackened. Show some respect to the ghosts that are ruining your life." Perhaps it's the subtle echo of the room, or the sobriety of the audience and film crew, but overall the soundtrack's atmosphere is more pensive than droll. Which is hard to believe, given that when the former Soft Boy isn't writing the occasional haunting melody such as "Queen Elvis" or "Nocturne (Prelude)," he's the master of the novelty song, punching up his John Lennon-meets-Syd Barrett sounds with clever-clever antics: "I Wish I Was a Pretty Girl," "My Wife and My Dead Wife," and the self-congratulatory ode to psychotherapy, "Uncorrected Personality Traits."

Most of Hitchcock's tunes inhabit the terrain between the two poles, though, and while the Storefront soundtrack packs plenty of these moderate offerings--"Let's Go Thundering," "I Something You" "Alright, Yeah"--even these are weighted with an uncharacteristically reverent treatment. It's an excellent shift for the performer, a sign of applied maturity, and casts a leaner, smarter shadow across this body of work.

The only track that pipes up with playful abandon is, ironically, the one about Hitchcock's dead father, a cancer victim. Titled the "The Yip! Song," it kicks in with about six long bars of Hitchcock yip-yip-yip-ing away, then bouncily chiming: "This old man, he was flesh / They wheeled him in upon a trolley / Virulent, virulent / Draw a window on his skin now." And what would a Hitchcock record be without such a tune?

Otherwise, the mournful, hypnotic element steals the show--"Glass Hotel", "Guilford," "Beautiful Queen"--and makes this a far more satisfying live record than most musicians could hope for, devoid as it is of audience noise and blurry, tinny instrumentation. Not to worry, though: The words "glistening" and "tomato" make their usual Hitchcock appearance. He's pleased with the soundtrack, though his affection for the film came about more slowly.

"It's odd for me to watch," he admits. "The first couple of times it was, especially, 'cause my head and guitar were so big. My head was the size of a bus. But I survived it. Now I'm very pleased with it. It took three viewings, then I began to relax into it."  

But for both record and film, he says, "the best bits are the improvised ones, either the words or the guitar solos, because those were the things I was free to do as I wanted to." After playing four two-hour shows in a row with a set repertoire, and after slagging though hours of the footage and sound recordings, Hitchcock and Demme seem to have pieced together the strongest possible representation of the event.

"But I've no idea what it's gonna do," Hitchcock sighs. "It's not gonna do an enormous amount at this rate unless MGM get their fingers out as regards to distribution. At least you're not gonna have cardboard cutouts rammed down your throat."

He vacillates between sounding frustrated and resigned. "You've got all these sort of little art films scurrying around on the forest floor," he adds, in true Hitchcockian form, "occasionally being crushed by the feet of the dinosaurs that lumber in slow motion above them. And my movie is one of those small things. The great thing about Jonathan is that he's able to do both. He can make one of those $200 million behemoths, or he can make a little, tiny, fragile thing like Storefront."

And so Hitchcock has been forced to modify his hopes for the film's future. Yet instead of resigning himself to its fate in limbo, he imagines a bright, brilliant future for his tiny, fragile little movie. If it ain't gonna make it into theaters, perhaps it will one day become the stuff of Sensaround legend.

"I hope it will last," he says. "I'd like to think that eventually it became one of those things like the Blues Brothers or Airplane!, where people would say"--he affects a nasal American accent--"'Hey, let's go and get some beers and rent Storefront, man,' or something. Put it on their state-of-the-art digital, room-to-room thing, whatever people will be watching on in five or 10 years' time." He brightens.

"Maybe they'll have home IMAX and you'll be lying in bed and you'll actually think you're in the audience. They'll have artificial heads all around you so you'll just think you're one of them. Maybe they'll enjoy virtual Hitchcock." Maybe they already are.

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