Jonathan Demme's "Storefront Hitchcock" is so compelling a concert film that it's easy to forget the chances he took in making it. For one, making a concert film is a risky enterprise in itself -- somewhere on the trip from stage to celluloid, the music's power is dulled. Though Demme's 1984 concert film of the Talking Heads, "Stop Making Sense," succeeded by capturing a world-class rock act in its ebullient prime, Robyn Hitchcock isn't a world-class rock act -- his demeanor is too modest for that, and his songs too lyrically gnarled for mass consumption. Arguably he's not even in his prime, either -- he's just completed a new album as well as a novel, "Jewels for Sophia," but his 1980 album with the Soft Boys, "Underwater Moonlight," remains one of his most consistent and enjoyable works, an album that sharpened to a punk-rock point all the Syd Barrett obsessions he'd fostered. And he's certainly not ebullient: His songs are filled with gallows humor and psychedelic meditations on insects and the human condition.
But Hitchcock's offhand attitude is part of what makes "Storefront Hitchcock" so enjoyable. In the spare setting of a New York City storefront, armed only with his guitar, he erases the overwrought feel of most of his work. The songs simply flow out of him, from the brittle and melodic Egyptians oldie "Glass Hotel" to the booming political folk of "1974." The understated charm of his songs, combined with his natural ability to make you laugh ("If it weren't for our rib cages," he says during one of his many lengthy extemporaneous asides, "it'd just be spleens a-go-go!"), make you root for him.
Demme approached Hitchcock about the idea for a film after seeing one of his concerts during the 1996 "Moss Elixer" tour. Originally he planned to shoot just one video; one video turned into several videos before Demme decided to make an entire film. Hitchcock was performing at the time with violinist Deni Bonet and guitarist Tim Keegan, whose performances in the movie -- and on the soundtrack CD -- offer a graceful melodic counterpoint to Hitchcock's guitar work. "Effectively what you have is a portable show," says Hitchcock in an interview. "You project it at them, and you're at a Robyn Hitchcock show, or a kind of Robyn Hitchcock show. But it's neither the sterile confines of a phone log, nor the rock club with the smoke and the sweat. [Demme] really got the best of both worlds."
Hitchcock was insistent on not making the performances for the film a greatest-hits affair. He does have a few of those -- hits, that is: Soft Boys favorites like "I Wanna Destroy You" and "Rock 'n' Roll Toilet," bona-fide chart-climbers like "Balloon Man" and "So You Think You're in Love," an out-of-character foray into jangle-pop that was far and away from his brainy Barrettisms. But the song selection instead focuses on "Moss Elixer"-era tunes, a few Egyptians concessions, a batch of songs written exclusively for the performance and a Jimi Hendrix cover, "The Wind Cries Mary" (which appears on the CD but not in the film). "For me, it's a risumi of my work. It basically shows people what I do. If you plug Robyn Hitchcock in, that's what he does. It's not crawling with horrible oldies; it doesn't have the dead-wife song or the balloon-man song or the obligatory Soft Boys encore, the crowd-pleasing things."
Instead, what listeners get to hear (and see) on "Storefront Hitchcock" is Hitchcock's musical ideas distilled in a way they've rarely been before. The stripped down, off-the-cuff feel is the music's greatest asset, and the performance features Hitchcock at his jauntiest: "Let's Go Thundering," buoyed by Bonet's searing violin, the giggling romantic tangle of "I Something You" (where he blurts "In the twilight of this world, you are my Dutch-Australia-Hungarian-Jewish girl") or the nearly irritating yipping of "The Yip! Song." But then there's that dark edge again: In the film, he introduces that last song by saying, "This is the most upbeat song I've ever written. It's about death from cancer." And elsewhere: "I don't know what kind of church you like to imagine, but I like to imagine a church full of carcasses."
Not the most obvious way to beat a path to celluloid glory, but like the man says, "With a name like Hitchcock, I'm never going to become a director." Meditating on his minor commercial successes, he sensibly notes that "they come and go, those points. People have a sort of morbid obsession with fame and success: 'You are going to be famous, aren't you?' as if somebody's asking their child if they're going to wear a coat when they go out in the cold. 'You make sure you're going to be famous!' As if there was no point in doing this unless my name were in lights and playing to millions of people.
"I ended up from one extreme to the other as a songwriter," he says. "I do songs which are dark, and I do songs which are piously dreary." Bless his heart, Hitchcock's probably the only songwriter this side of Marilyn Manson who figures "dark" and "dreary" to be extremes. Lest one think that the restful, nearly upbeat feel of "Storefront Hitchcock" represents a newfound hope, there's his apocalyptic comments to contend with: "We're very close to leaving the planet, maybe in the next 100 years. There'll be golf on the moon, and theme parks and the inevitable strip malls. If we went into space now, we'd do nothing but pollute it. Space isn't going to be full of Quakers. It's going to be full of the meanest Glaxo dudes you can find." But at least he sounds like he's ready to round up a few Quakers to fend off the tyranny of pharmaceutical conglomerates. Or at least whip up a song about it; it's Hitchcock's chosen role to make the end of the world sound like a pretty hilarious concept. It might not make him famous -- but it did, after all, land him on the silver screen.