“There’s people that like to do things the safe way, and that’s just never been part of my vocabulary,” says Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong in the voiceover that opens the slavish new documentary Broadway Idiot. It sets an appropriately fawning tone, as Armstrong and the musical based on the 2004 Green Day album American Idiot are celebrated for 80 straight minutes. This documentary by rookie director Doug Hamilton plays more like a featurette on an American Idiot DVD than a stand-alone film.
At the start of Broadway Idiot, Armstrong is about to make his acting debut in the musical, so the film attempts to trace American Idiot’s unlikely transformation from a career-re-energizing album to Broadway musical. To tell the story, Hamilton focuses on Armstrong and the play’s director, Michael Mayer (and to a lesser extent, musical supervisor Tom Kitt), two men who’ve led opposite lives—as the film notes repeatedly—yet overcame their different backgrounds to make a hit musical. But Hamilton doesn’t go very far into their personal stories; Armstrong gets more time than Mayer, whose past is never explored. Although viewers of the film probably know that American Idiot ended up going to Broadway (where it won two Tony Awards for scenic design and lighting design), the early part of the film focuses on its trial run in Berkeley, California with the hopes of making it to The Great White Way. Broadway Idiot offers no explanation of how a show gets to Broadway, just an abrupt announcement after a successful run elsewhere that it was going to New York. (The re-casting of an important role isn’t explained, either.)
Hamilton has a lengthy background as a writer and director for PBS mainstays like Nova and Frontline, but he assembles Broadway Idiot like it was made for MTV, with split-second, almost subliminal flashes of photos and video, and an obnoxious habit of flashily subtitling people’s words. (When Mayer discusses his indifference about whether critics like the musical, it’s displayed as a Facebook “like” button that animates from a thumbs-up to a middle finger.)
Even at a svelte 80 minutes, Broadway Idiot feels too long, mostly because it continually restates its themes. Hamilton keeps his camera on Armstrong and Mayer, rarely investigating the lives of the cast or the nuts and bolts of creating a new Broadway musical. The former is a real shame, because the best moment of the film happens when an actor tears up before the opening-night performance while discussing what the show means to him. As important as Broadway Idiot makes American Idiot out to be, it only skims the surface, heaping more praise on Armstrong instead of digging deeper.