Robyn Hitchcock, whose offbeat music has made him a critics’ darling and cult favorite, is good-natured about his lack of mainstream success.
“I basically play for intellectuals, hippies, dissidents and perverts,” the English singer-songwriter says.
Should his self-deprecating wit permit it, though, he can now add one more category to that group: Oscar-winning film directors.
On this rainy morning, Hitchcock is sitting on a small stage in a storefront overlooking 14th Street in Manhattan as a camera crew films the third of four two-hour daytime concerts that will be the focus of Jonathan Demme’s next feature film. The project, whose working title is “Storefront Hitchcock,” is scheduled for a fall release.
With credits ranging from “The Silence of the Lambs” (his Oscar) to “Philadelphia,” Demme is one of America’s most respected directors.
But it’s an opportunity to see Hitchcock that has inspired most of the hundred or so fans assembled here to come out in stormy weather. He’s an artist whom “The Rolling Stone Album Guide” calls “one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most gifted eccentrics,” performing music that “evokes much of the same benign insanity that marked John Lennon’s most whimsical moments.”
The audience sits in rapt appreciation, unperturbed by the rolling cameras and men in headsets, as the lanky, plainly dressed singer performs his literate folk-rock songs, accompanying himself on guitar and getting support from guitarist Tim Keegan and violinist Deni Bonet.
The only sounds to be heard aside from music and applause are laughter at Hitchcock’s wry observations between numbers, and the odd whistle for the raven-haired, apple-cheeked Bonet.
Demme is mostly silent and unobtrusive, absorbed in his work. He’s no stranger to working with pop musicians, having directed videos for Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young, as well as the 1984 concert film “Stop Making Sense,” which helped boost the Talking Heads into the ranks of million-sellers.
The potential commercial value in being the subject of a Demme film is not lost on Hitchcock, a big fan of the director who lists his “Married to the Mob” among his favorite films. While grabbing a snack in the lounge of his Manhattan hotel shortly after shooting wraps, the singer expresses enthusiasm and gratitude--in his fashion.
“I think this film is very timely for me,” Hitchcock says, leaning back in his chair. “In the past, I’ve had a couple of radio hits, or been trendy on college [radio]. Now I’m 43; I’m not really a rock musician as such. I can’t go around, or I don’t choose to go around, piercing my navel or working out or becoming a junkie so that I can get written up in Spin. I’ve forked off on a different tangent. So this [film] will be good for me. . . .
“My career is like a balloon, and I guess I need a shot of helium every 200 miles, or whatever. I think this film will provide one of those.”
Demme and Hitchcock look like compatible partners as they work on the set, each exuding a comfortable, unassuming intensity.
Minutes before shooting starts, the singer mingles with crew members at a catering table near the performance area, joking in a quiet, relaxed manner. Demme is similarly casual and congenial while conferring with his colleagues and some representatives from Orion Pictures, which will distribute the movie.
The collaborators met in April 1995, when Hitchcock performed at a club in Piermont, N.Y., a small town near Demme’s home. Hitchcock had recently disbanded his longtime backing band the Egyptians and was between record deals.
Demme describes himself as an “obsesso new-wave/punk fan” in the early to mid-'80s who liked several of Hitchcock’s singles with the Egyptians--though he missed out on the Soft Boys, the guitar-pop band that Hitchcock fronted from 1976 to 1981.
But he was “knocked out” by the live club show. “It was as fantastic a music performance as I had seen in years,” he recalls. “I asked if I could go backstage to shower compliments on him. We were introduced, and I sort of volunteered as a video director if he needed one.”
After signing with Warner Bros. Records last year, Hitchcock took Demme up on his offer. The singer isn’t a fan of videos in general. “I think they’re just another excuse to watch television, and they’re a real substitute for people’s imaginations,” he says.
Still, he liked the idea of doing one that at least featured a live vocal performance, which is also Demme’s preference.
They started shooting one song, then did three more. When Warner Bros. got involved, it expanded to an hourlong performance suitable for a longform video.
Says Hitchcock: “Then one day Jonathan called me on his way to the dentist, and he said, ‘We’re talking about 90 minutes now. I consider this to be my next movie.’ And I thought, ‘Wow.’ ”
Demme had successfully directed both the concert film “Stop Making Sense” and 1987’s “Swimming to Cambodia,” which consists of a long monologue by the author and raconteur Spalding Gray. So he saw no reason that a film that alternated between spare, acoustic renditions of Hitchcock’s songs and his razor-sharp banter couldn’t work.
“Musically, Robyn’s obviously got it,” Demme says. “He has a wonderful voice, he’s a terrific guitar player, and he writes hooks and melodies that challenge anybody’s. And I thought that his whole verbal thing was a fantastic additional creative dimension that could help make a movie.”
The concept makes sense to Geoffrey Weiss, vice president of artists and repertoire at Warner Bros., who brought Hitchcock to the label. “Robyn is as much a monologuist as he is a musician,” the Los Angeles-based executive says. “He’s always been a great songwriter, but he’s also a great personality; and if all you’ve seen are his rock shows with the Egyptians, that hasn’t been as apparent. Capturing that storyteller aspect was very important to Jonathan, I think.”
It was Demme’s decision to put Hitchcock in a storefront in Manhattan’s bustling Flatiron/Union Square district. Years earlier, he had caught a memorable show in a storefront on the similarly chaotic 23rd Street by a theater company that made clever use of local color.
“I knew there would be a pretty heavy flow of traffic,” Demme says a few days later, looking back on the shoot. “And I thought, ‘Who knows? Maybe we’ll attract some attention and something interesting might happen.’ I thought we would get at least one rowdy, drunken group of teenagers who would moon us or something, but nothing like that happened.
“We did have fleets of firetrucks pass by, and a cop pulled someone over across the street. And there were the occasional delightful small crowds. And as the light changed outside, it brought an amazing visual quality to the filming.
“Also, I loved the idea of seeing Robyn work as other people went to work,” he adds. “14th Street is a street of working people; everybody has something to do down there. And I really thought that that was an appropriate, organic setting for Robyn, because one of the many ways that I think of him is as a people’s troubadour--a mad visionary, admittedly, but also a people’s troubadour.”
Hitchcock himself was completely at ease with Demme’s approach. “It was all pretty natural,” the singer says. “It wasn’t unlike being in a club, apart from the fact that there were four cameras and 30 crew members, and no one in the audience could smoke or drink. And it took place at lunchtime.”
Though the Talking Heads had already broken into the Top 20 album charts by the time of “Stop Making Sense,” the film soundtrack was the group’s first million-seller. Hitchcock has yet to break into the Top 100 with any of his 15 albums, but this exposure might change that.
Warner Bros.’ Weiss is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for both the movie and its soundtrack. “We’re going to be promoting this aggressively,” he says.
“We’re not expecting to make Robyn a pop star . . . but if we can get every person who’s ever been a fan to see the movie and buy the [soundtrack album] and turn a few other people on to him, I’ll be thrilled.”
Don’t expect that album to be a straight musical document of the film. As usual, the unpredictable Hitchcock is likely to surprise us.
“The album will have a few songs that aren’t included in the film, and it may lose a few songs that are in the film,” he says. “I don’t know how many of the verbal raps we’ll keep, either. Maybe we’ll have different raps. It has to stand on its own.”
As Demme sees it: “With his musical gifts, Robyn would be vastly more well known had he written the sort of middle-of-the-road pop songs that make great hits. The nature of his creative beast is that he has been unable to take the easy road to popularity, but I’m hoping that the movie helps him take the higher road to greater recognition.”