Mossman on music: American Idiot

The Green Day-inspired musical reviewed.

The new Green Day musical reminds me of the bit in Naked Gun 33 1/3 where they’re reading out the Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress. “Fatal Affair: One woman’s ordeal to overcome the death of her cat, set against the background of the Hindenburg Disaster”; “Basic Analysis: One woman’s fight against a yeast infection, set against the background of the tragic Buffalo Bills season of 1968”. Billie Joe Armstrong’s two-hour stage show is one man’s failure to put his trousers on, set against the backdrop of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq.

It is churlish to criticise the plot of a Juke Box musical. Queen’s We Will Rock You follows a group of “Bohemians” fighting against “Radio Gaga” (processed music, boy bands) and searching for the elusive “Brighton Rock” (a guitar buried in a cave); Rock Of Ages has developers trying to knock down the club where all the characters hang out, simply to facilitate a segue into Starship’s "We Built This City". In many ways, the worse the link, the more fun that moment of recognition.

But there’s something grim about Green Day’s attempt to turn their Grammy-winning concept album (“a response to the realities of the post 9/11 era”) into a stage musical – not because the subject is too heavy, but because, judging by how fearfully they tiptoe around it on stage, the “promise” of 9/11 has simply been used to put bums on seats.

Of course you don’t want to see people dancing round the Twin Towers (and you don’t). I’m not living in America: perhaps this masterpiece of vaguery worked better there – it managed 421 nights on Broadway, though Armstrong had to start appearing in it himself in order to up the ratings. But two dozen TV screens broadcasting a garbled narrative about all sorts of nasty things like AIDS and earthquakes (and terrorism) while lead character Johnny cries “I’m fed up of afternoons of shit-talking and blah-fucking-blah” is not a poignant rumination on an era, and shouldn’t be billed as one.

In Green Day’s original 2004 album, Johnny was called Jesus of Suburbia. He met a punk freedom fighter and fell in love with a woman (called Whatsername) who represented “mother revolution”. It wasn’t Bertolt Brecht but it meant something – it was impassioned, and ambitious, and bold for a snarky little punk rock band to come out with a song called "Wake Me Up When September Ends".

It’s assumed that the musical-going public are too thick to handle allegory, so rather than those abstract figures we’ve got Johnny, Tunny and Matt. The former becomes a junkie, and when that doesn’t work out he comes home deducing, “She was right, I am an idiot … This is my rage. This is my love. This is my town.” Apart from its visualisation of chronic loserdom in Johnny, the show’s political content is focused on Tunny, who is seduced into war with the baffling libretto “[his] dream turned red, white and blue! But I thought that good guys don't wear red, white, and blue! Nobody seems to agree on anything these days!” The stage is briefly awash with dancing soldiers but no actual war is mentioned, just as no president is mentioned (there’s a truncated clip of George Bush’s “you’re either with us…”) and no real-life, world-changing event.

Stage shows generate regular cash and introduce your back catalogue to a new audience. Billie Joe is not exactly up the dumper – Green Day’s new album ¡Uno! has been met, as the saying goes, with a mixed critical reaction, he’s now 40 and he went into rehab last month following a meltdown on stage in Las Vegas: it’s not hard to guess why someone thought this musical would be a good idea. But Green Day, unlike Queen or Abba, don’t have enough hits to fill a full-length stage show – just three or four; they’d have been better off harnessing their “slacker” thing and going down the Avenue Q or Loserville route, if they really wanted to see their name in lights. And maybe there is a “post-9/11” musical to be written one day – by Stephen Colbert, or David and Amy Sedaris, or Jon Stewart, or maybe all four of them together. Well, maybe.

Green Day’s "American Idiot" is at the Edinburgh Playhouse next week and on a national tour, ending at London’s Hammersmith Apollo in December.

Billie Joe Armstrong on Broadway with the cast of American Idiot. Photo: Getty Images.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear