The eccentric appeal of Brit singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock gets a nice permanent showcase in Jona-than Demme’s third performance-record feature. While unlikely to have the same impact as helmer’s two prior such breaks from major studio projects — Talking Heads concert pic “Stop Making Sense” and Spalding Gray monologue “Swimming to Cambodia,” both watersheds for their type — pic should scare up some change in limited release for Orion, then enjoy decent shelf life via rep-house, vid and cable circuits.
Never much noticed at home — despite or because of his very English, Lewis Carroll-meets-Monty Python sensibility — Hitchcock first won U.S. cult attention as part of the Cambridge-bred Soft Boys in the late ’70s. Going solo with the backup Egyptians unit, he was a U.S. modern-rock radio staple through the late ’80s. But that following flagged early this decade (he now records for Warners following a major reissue campaign by Rhino), so “Storefront” comes as a welcome career shore-up.
As a lyricist, Hitchcock is Carroll-meets-Python via Dali, spinning out surreal, often humorous juxtapositions. As a melodist, he’s indebted to the breadth of a U.K. Oddjob Rock Troubadour tradition stretching from novelty-pop Herman’s Hermits to ex-Pink Floyd nutty experimenter Syd Barrett and wispy romantics like Nick Drake. A healthy dose of plain old chimey folk-rock is thrown in for good measure.
His songs can seem too calculatedly wacky at times, particularly amid studio recording gloss. Hitchcock’s best forum has long been live performance, where his nasal yet rich, supple voice shines, and his seemingly impromptu between-song patter suggests a pleasing form of mild insanity.
There’s little fuss in Demme’s presentation of 15 songs, performed (for an unseen live aud) against a Manhattan storefront over two days. Passersby (some early ones looking a bit planted) gawk against the window; the backdrop shifts occasionally (colored translucent squares, a gray curtain, etc.); modest props (candles, mirror ball, large sculptural “tomato”) are introduced then removed. Mostly, however, it’s straight-up concert stuff, deftly but unobtrusively lit and shot.
A lanky, handsome, slightly graying 40-ish figure wearing successive loud shirts, Hitchcock switches from acoustic to electric guitar at midpoint; violinist Deni Bonet joins up for two numbers, guitarist-vocalist Tim Keegan for one. The star’s verbal prattlings, which free-range amongst politics, religion, beef consumption and minotaurs bearing duct tape, are amusing enough.
But the songs are the real attraction here, and they provide a good overview of a large personal catalog. At his least, Hitchcock can seem like a coy absurdist poseur (as in opener “Devil’s Radio”). More often he crafts sweet-sounding, lyrically perverse keepers, like the barbed homage to “1974” or the ambivalent “You and Oblivion.” His best, most enduring work is repped by such simple and spectrally beautiful tunes as “Airscape” and “Glass Hotel.”
Pic opens with a brief montage of NYC skyscapes, and ends with a multi-image musical performance/credit scroll. Otherwise, Demme’s clean compositions and the pristine sound recording just do the job required, albeit very gracefully. Sharp editing between four cameras’ input keeps minimalist package visually alert.