“Broadway Idiot,” Doug Hamilton’s behind-the-scenes film about the creation of the “American Idiot” musical, has its world premiere today, a double-feature with “Cuatro!,” which chronicles Green Day’s recording of three albums.
“Broadway Idiot” covers the development of the theater piece in Berkeley, Calif., the presentation of the material to Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool, the transfer to Broadway and Armstrong’s growing involvement in the project until, finally, he becomes a member of the cast as St. Jimmy. The show ran on Broadway from a year in 2010-2011 and been touring ever since.
Like all musicals, the producers film rehearsals early on to create marketing materials such as trailers and producer Ira Pittelman says he started to see potential for a documentary, calling in Hamilton, whose work has been seen on PBS’s “Nova”and elsewhere.
Hamilton and Pittelman, who ran Heartland Music for 30 years before becoming a Broadway producer 12 years ago, shared some insights on a unique Broadway presentation and the film.
The film sticks with the creative process and does not venture into any side subjects. When did you realize you had enough material and a story arc to focus it?
Doug Hamilton: I felt strongly that I didn’t want to go outside the process. I didn’t want this to be a newsy film where you have analysts talking about Broadway or the reviewer coming in and talking about the show. We had incredible and very rare access to the creative process and as a filmmaker that’s gold. Film and TV work best when you go places you don’t usually go and nobody gets inside that rehearsal room or (recording studio). And there wasn’t a lot of conflict.
What was the point at which you said there’s a story here?
Hamilton: The thing that surprised everyone is that bit by bit, Billie Joe got really interested in the show and was finding a personal connection with it. He talks about how he idealizes the early period of Green Day where there was a real community of musicians and, as Green Day got bigger, they lost a lot of those friends. He wanted a community, and what he says in the film is that it blindsided him that he found it in theater. He fell in love with the cast as they did with him. He found a musical connection with the company and the music supervisor Tom Kitt.
Eventually he takes on the role of St. Jimmy, which obviously helped sell out the shows in the winter.
Pittelman: The first time he appeared was for a week in September. We didn’t tell anybody because we didn’t know what was going to happen and Billie didn’t know what was going to happen. So he waited until a day or two before his first performance and he tweeted. We didn’t do any ads and there were lines around the block. When he was in it, the place levitated.
How do you compare his involvement with that of other musicians?
Pittelman: I’ve worked with a lot of stars, but I have never quite seen this. He became the dad and Adrienne, his wife, became the mom. He played softball with them, he remembered everybody’s birthday, he’d be there 45 minutes before warm-up and every night he’d put on some kind of costume. One night he went out on the street as the Naked Cowboy. The cast is all kids who are major Green Day fans. This sounds corny, but it was inspiring.
One of the cool things about the film is that you show not only how “American Idiot’s” music can be arranged in different ways, but the connection with a traditional Broadway musical, like “Chorus Line.”
Hamilton: We wanted to get at this issue and we wanted to put Tom and (director) Michael Mayer and Billie together talking about the music. We explore the music and Billie Joe’s roots in music, with Tom talking on the keyboard musician to musician. In one of the interviews, (Armstrong) talked about how he trained as a little kid to sing Frank Sinatra and George M. Cohan songs. We didn’t have a place to use that until I found footage of Billie at 14 singing some holiday carols. I cut that in and Billie said ‘I think it works, but I think I can do better for you.’ Couple weeks later I get an email from Billie saying ‘I’m sending you something.’ He had gone to his cousin’s and gotten footage of him singing ‘Send in the Clowns’ when he was 11. It was perfect. It was Billie’s willingness to let that stuff out there.