Heart Like A Hand Grenade Less Than Explosive

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Author: Gerry Maravilla

If you had told me when I was in high school that Green Day would rival U2 and Coldplay as the biggest band in modern music, I would have made fun of you. Not because I dislike the band. I love them dearly and always have. However, after 1994’s Dookie, their popularity waned with each album they released. By the time I was in middle school and boasting Nimrod and Warning as two of my favorite albums, I faced people without any idea who the band was until I mentioned “Good Riddance” (the actual name of the song everyone refers to as, “Time of Your Life”).

If they did know the group, they would mock them for fading into obscurity or the fact that they had been forced to open for Blink 182 during the 2002 Pop Disaster Tour. American Idiot changed all of that and catapulted the band into unprecedented success, consolidating their place as a permanent household name.

Although the album itself is almost five years old, it wasn’t until March 25, 2009, at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, that Bay Area filmmaker John Roecker released his documentary, Heart Like a Hand Grenade. Roecker’s film showcases the recording, rehearsals and early performances of American Idiot during this pivotal stage in the band’s career.

I originally learned of the film back in 2004, when the album was first released. Roecker had mentioned in interviews that he had some intense footage of the band recording their punk rock opera. According to rumor, Warner Bros. did not want to distribute the film or even release it because it displayed controversial material. The record company was worried that the footage would curb album/ticket sales.

Roecker is mainly known for his odd and off-beat films, namely Live Freaky, Die Freaky, a dark, humourous and bizarre take on the Charles Manson crimes told through stop-motion puppets. Needless to say, as a long time fan, I was quite eager to catch a glimpse of the process that made one of my favorite bands a pop culture sensation.

Heart Like a Hand Grenade opens with an homage to D. A. Pennebaker’s film Don’t Look Back (a documentary on Bob Dylan’s tour of England in 1965). In Pennebaker’s film, Dylan holds up cue cards for the audience with words from the song on them. While staring at the camera, he flips the cards as the song plays. Roecker does the same, but uses all three members of Green Day to cycle through the lyrics for “American Idiot.”

The structure of the documentary centers around the making of the album’s thirteen tracks and more or less sticks to the three R’s of music documentaries: recording, relaxing and rehearsing. The film is comprised of several parts, some of which focus on a single song. In between songs, Roecker gives us tidbits of the band drunkenly stumbling into a pool, telling the president of Capitol Records “he can go fuck himself,” and discussing the origins of the album’s logo: a hand holding a bleeding heart grenade.

Aside from directing, Roecker also shot the film in its entirety. Rumor has it that the film was not entirely his idea. Apparently, the band called the filmmaker before the first day of recording and invited Roecker to come film them.

Aesthetically the film feels very much like cut-together home video. The camera moves from one person to another during conversations and during performances doesn’t stray from traditional music video shooting techniques. Roecker makes the best of his on-the-fly shooting schedule by choosing different angles and zooms of the band and their equipment. Roecker’s editor makes use of the abundance of footage shot for each song and cuts together different parts of the same track with bits of in-studio recording, rehearsals and live performances.

It is the discussion of the logo that offers one of the film’s most interesting moments. The genesis of the logo is derived from the band’s desire to have a symbol or icon to associate with their rock opera.

Record executives suggested using the image of George W. Bush in order make the band’s political commentary even more transparent. The band quickly shot the idea down, stating that they did not want something overtly politicized. Lead guitarist and singer Billie Joe Armstrong references his tattoo of the Jesus Christ Superstar symbol of two angels facing one another in a horse-shoe shape as a starting point for a design for their own logo. The band chooses to prioritize the story and themes of the album’s narrative over their own political ambitions and biases.

It is difficult to give a final verdict on the film. As a fan, it was extremely enjoyable to hear the band’s epic opera blared through a stereo’s surround sound system and catch footage from some key shows that I was lucky enough to attend.

However, people looking for an in-depth look at the writing of such a monumental album will be ultimately disappointed. There is no footage of the band’s rumored heated writing experiences or extensive partying.

Music documentaries seldom break new ground when it comes to covering big-name bands. In my experience, they tend to adhere to a formula — interspersing footage of bands performing with casual conversation between members.

John Roecker successfully utilizes that formula in Heart Like a Hand Grenade to the best of its ability. However, his inability to veer away from it leaves both the fan and film-lover in me craving much more.

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