Even if you’re not a devotee of Robyn Hitchcock, Jonathan Demme’s cult-classic concert film chronicling the British singer-songwriter’s live show is a fascinating experience.
Even if you’re not a devotee of Robyn Hitchcock, Jonathan Demme’s cult-classic concert film chronicling the British singer-songwriter’s live show is a fascinating experience. Storefront Hitchcock possesses a central conceit as simple as its title. In the film, Hitchcock performs in a Manhattan storefront window to an audience we never see, while the blank canvas behind him shifts and transforms, from random, peering passersby to colored gels on the glass panes.
Though often described as a spiritual successor to Stop Making Sense, the particular way Demme chooses to frame Hitchcock calls to mind his work with Spalding Gray. As in Swimming to Cambodia, the perspective sticks with that of the unseen concertgoers, providing an intimate experience that’s close to seeing Hitchcock live without feeling un-cinematic. There’s a finite number of angles and set-ups from a compositional standpoint, but subtle changes in mood and lighting provide a breadth of visual variety to match the emotional rollercoaster of Hitchcock’s clever, vulnerable songcraft.
Hitchcock, as a performer, imbues his live show with a stand-up comedy vibe, minus the cloying, try-hard irritation so many musicians who think they’re funny can’t seem to shake. He’s a potent presence, injecting the sullen spaces between each song with off-the-cuff interludes. The conversational banter has a stylized tenor to it, but the natural rhythms of Hitchcock’s speech ebb and flow much the way his lyricism does. His palpable wit and somewhat manic charisma give off the impression of someone whose quirks might be a put-on, a charming façade as a disarming mechanism. But his casual observations bend towards the existential and his jokes leave the listener pondering their own emotional detritus in a way that makes him startlingly genuine.
Demme aids this effortless connection between the performer and the viewer with his plaintive framing, pulling back in the wide for some of the introductory chatter to imply an invisible proscenium arch, and then cutting into close-ups and two-shots for punchier moments in the songs themselves. It’s a deceptively simple approach to concert filmmaking not unlike the way Hitchcock presents himself as an entertainer. These two talents are so well-suited to one another for their shared ability to hopscotch between shrewd comedy and discomfiting drama. For both Demme and Hitchcock, it’s the chasm between the two where the most fertile concepts dwell.
Storefront Hitchcock isn’t quite as transcendent as the depiction of Talking Heads in Stop Making Sense, largely because Hitchcock’s appeal is more niche than that beloved band’s. Talking Heads non-fans could find themselves easily converted midway through a viewing of that film, while Storefront Hitchcock feels more like a capable B-side, a worthwhile curio for the Hitchcock aficionados and Demme completists alike. Some will watch Storefront Hitchcock enraptured with its subject’s magnetism and launch themselves into a Soft Boys reissue shopping spree. But others will be temporarily enthralled with Demme’s return to a paradigm he so well executed in his last masterwork, pleasantly surprised at how well the film holds up, but no doubt finding it wanting in relation to a universal classic. Regardless, it’s still a fine feather in the late filmmaker’s cap, even if you’re not much for Brits with acoustic guitars.