It’s now been six years since Green Day’s punk rock concept record American Idiot surfaced; six years since acclaimed music video director Samuel Bayer brought the loosely-translated storyline of Johnny & Whatsername, via the numerous singles, on cable channels, and YouTube domains across the globe (epic “Jesus Of Suburbia” included). Shortly after, the band who went from grungy pop-punk to quasi-political mega-stardom dabbled in alternative musical forms more akin to The Beatles (see: Foxboro Hot Tubs) while semi-confessing to an American Idiot film script being in the works, a la The Wall.
Last year, Green Day released another album in the vein of American Idiot titled 21st Century Breakdown, and now American Idiot‘s track list (along with a handful of Breakdown‘s tunes) graces the Broadway stage in full musical form with a sung-through format and a varied cast of actors and actresses on board. American Idiot: The Musical has received mixed reviews from theatrical critics, and though the members of Green Day themselves are not physically amongst the cast, a live on-stage band provides sound accompaniment, and therefore we have a soundtrack.
The Broadway cast recording follows along American Idiot’s original track order, with Breakdown songs like “Last Of The American Girls” and the ferociously better-than-the-first rendition of “21 Guns” interspersed between (in the case of “…American Girls”, the song is transformed into a two-parter with Idiot‘s “She’s A Rebel”). If you visit Wikipedia or have already gotten the general idea, the songs on American Idiot: The Musical tell a story of Johnny and his friends, who were raised on the media in suburbia, whisked away to the city to hang with “Holiday”, and from there, a downward spiral into drugs and sex with dealer St. Jimmy and love interest Whatsername, all leading to the eventual Fight Club-esque revelation that St. Jimmy happens to be Johnny’s chaotic alter-ego (along with various sub-plots revolving around teen pregnancy and war).
You get all that?
In terms of musical quality, the songs obviously lack Billie Joe Armstrong’s trademark faux-Rotten vocals, in lieu of a cast of characters with varying degrees of talent and delivery. “Give Me Novacaine” becomes less surfer punk rock and more a cynical “Kumbaya” moment on the beachfront during the beginning, adding a bit of escapism to the moment (this marks the point where Johnny enters his drug addictions). “Last Of The American Girls/She’s A Rebel” starts off like The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and goes into the alternation between its respective soft/punk songs with great ease (another example of two songs outdoing the originals). A song like”St. Jimmy” is turned from simply a punk rock anthem into cast member Tony Vincent’s Shakespearean monologue, delivered in punk rock form, and introduced by a vibrant mob scene who appear to hold Jimmy up on a Rebel Without A Cause-type pedestal (quite possibly the best song on this soundtrack), while a song like Rebecca Naomi Jones’ “Letterbomb” allows our dear “21 Guns”-helming drama queen to really belt out her distressed and angry chops before a big backing chorus section of vocalists.
Outside of some changes, the entirety of the cast recording comes across as a Green Day color-by-numbers, with certain highlights standing out amidst the bold, dark lines where they are allowed to exist. Though reviewing the soundtrack is not to review the stage show, the two cannot be independent of one another due to nature of their very fruition. Watching something like this live has to be one phenomenal experience, if the vocal talents of cast members from Ms. Jones (“21 Guns”, “Letterbomb”) to the whole of it in rounds (“American Idiot”) is any indication. Unfortunately, I am reviewing the soundtrack alone which abstains from acting talent and visuals due to its inherent medium, and this does lend itself to one enormous downside — presentation.
To elaborate, here is an example: Pink Floyd’s The Wall was released in 1979 on vinyl; in touring the album, the band used monstrous stage pieces to really bring the work to life. Pink Floyd’s The Wall premiered on screen in film form in 1982, and while there were edits and exclusions made to the film’s musical pieces, all in all The Wall – which one could ostensibly call a long-form music video — was built up from its vinyl counterpart. Now, assume that the music for the film had been produced by a stand-in band, and assume no one had seen the movie. Would it be a soundtrack or a tribute album? The Kinks did many a rock opera back in the day, and though said albums were converted to stage productions (with the band’s direct involvement), the basis of all was still the original records and to make soundtracks of soundtracks feels a bit redundant. Along that note, a rock opera with a substantially weighted narrative is a far cry from Green Day’s loose themes and concept records, and translating them over actually took some retooling and scripting to compensate for a lack of aforementioned narrative (i.e. expanding Idiot‘s story from one suburbanite fish out of water to many drawn out cases of life lessons and corruption in the big, bad city).
The musical stage version of American Idiot suffers from that very confusion by virtue of the fact that, with it being on Broadway in New York and having no DVD to disperse to the masses, a good chunk of the population has not seen said version, so associating the two is moot outside of American Idiot‘s initial premise, and what we are left with is a cover record. This takes away a good punch of this live recording, along with its very point in ever existing — to translate the stage show’s messages and story to album form, and to demonstrate the cast’s stellar performance ability. In reality, everything becomes chalked up to cover songs that are sometimes better and sometimes worse than its source material; in other words, a live record that could have just as easily been done by Green Day from a film soundtrack and been twice as tangible. This recording of the cast from American Idiot: The Musical serves a dual purpose now, as both brilliant proof of the intensity and creativity behind Green Day’s universally palatable subject matter on Idiot and Breakdown, and proof of a soundtrack that might as well be a tribute to Green Day on its own.
To its credit however, at least it was done spectacularly well; otherwise, the translation could have been deemed worthy of a generic five dollar string quartet session equivalent. The rating is not indicative of the cast members’ talent, but more on the idea that most would benefit more from the stage show (on DVD or otherwise) than its album recording delivery. Until that’s available, I suggest you go see the stage show first (that is, if you can) to get a fuller effect.