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'Heart Like a Hand Grenade' fuses punk rock antics with superstar vision

March 26, 2009 |  6:31 pm

Heart1350 “Heart Like a Hand Grenade,” John Roecker’s raw, irreverent documentary about the creation of Green Day’s blockbuster album “American Idiot,” is about as intimate a look at the band’s creative process and personal dynamic as any fan has a right to expect.

"It’s like a home movie, but with a really talented family,” Roecker said at the premiere last night at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, where more than 400 Green Day fans were treated to posters, T-shirts and a glimpse at the inner workings of Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt and Tre Cool as they recorded their blistering breakthrough "American Idiot." It’s hard to imagine how Green Day could top that album's success, or political fire, but they will try when “21st Century Breakdown” hits stores on May 15. The album’s first single, “Know Your Enemy,” will be available digitally next month.

Roecker is not your typical filmmaker, and “Heart Like a Hand Grenade” is the punk-rock polar opposite of the slick multimillion-dollar concert film “Bullet in a Bible,” released by Warner Bros. on DVD in 2005. It’s gritty and crude, and scenes of the band playing and joking around are intercut with scenes from old movies as diverse as Bob Fosse’s “Sweet Charity” and the silent “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” starring John Barrymore (who receives a winking screen credit at the end of “Heart Like a Hand Grenade”).

Following the general outline of the “rock opera,” Roecker and editor Dean Gonzalez whittled down 300 hours of video into a frenetically paced two-hour opus that traces the genesis of the album from rehearsal through recording and onto the first live performance at the Henry Fonda Theater in September 2004.

Along the way, Green Day playfully pays homage to Bob Dylan, holding up cue cards with the lyrics of “American Idiot,” as Dylan did with "Subterranean Homesick Blues" in the 1967 documentary “Don’t Look Back.” Armstrong and Cool offer advice on how to “drink responsibly” -- the key, according to Armstrong, is to consume a bottle of water in between each beer. At one point, Armstrong has a bout of flatulence that drives Dirnt out of the sound booth, and in a telling screed, Armstrong brutally mocks critics who suggested the band would be better off going back to their roots after the 2000 release "Warning": “Do we really have to make another ‘Dookie?’”

“American Idiot” proved those critics wrong in a big way. And rightfully, in  “Heart Like a Hand Grenade” -- from its Gothic title cards to its middle-finger coda -- the focus is on the music and on Armstrong’s tunnel-vision drive to fulfill his concept. Whether it’s Armstrong rehearsing “Give Me Novocaine” all alone on an acoustic guitar or Dirnt recording his bass track on “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” Roecker’s lens was there as the songs of “American Idiot” came to life.
“Heart Like a Hand Grenade” bridges the gap between Green Day’s gritty punk roots and its superstar status.

--post and photo by Pamela Wilson

Photo: Roecker with Green Day fans Kyle and Amy Haukka of Santa Clarita.