Listen to this track by surrealist pop musician, singer-songwriter and pretty handy guitarist too, Robyn Hitchcock. It’s his 1998 rendition of his song “Glass Hotel”, one of the many he performed for the Jonathan Demme film Storefront Hitchcock. Where another of Demme’s high-profile concert films, Stop Making Sense, portrays his subject matter on a large, exaggerated scale (big suit and all!), Storefront Hitchcock is all about understatement, and space.
And this is one of the most understated in the set, a song of delicacy and dreamlike lyrical landscapes, all the while being observed by the off-camera audience in front of him, and those who walk by the window of the titular storefront in which the concert is occurring.
The song originally appears on 1990’s Eye, where it’s something of a deep-cut. Here, it’s a moment of quiet, taking on an almost liturgical sheen, with a bit of Salvador Dali thrown in. After all, this is Robyn Hitchcock, an artist not generally known for his straight-forward material. And the filming of this show had this as its basis; to showcase the songwriter as a singular performer.
But in some ways, this film is also about the viewer.
Jonathan Demme had created a number of box-office smashes by 1998, including the aforementioned Stop Making Sense, but also Silence of the Lambs, and Philadelphia, among others. But, he was still a music fan, and interested in presenting musical performances in uniquely cinematic ways that are true to the artists and their work.
As far as the audience goes, this is one of the most interesting aspects of the film. There is the audience for whom Hitchcock is playing. There is the passersby audience as well, given that there is a big storefront window looking in on the action, with many people only catching brief snippets of what’s happening inside. There is yet a third audience, too; the ones at home, or in the theatre, watching the filmed version of the events.
Which version of the events is the correct one?
That’s why this song hooks into the narrative string of the film so well. The song is about observations, and of perceptions that are not quite verified, fixed, or objective (“seems like, seems like”). Having experiences and making observations of anything is about interpreting what is happening in the moment from a personal point of view. It’s also about adjusting to how one’s perceptions of moments are then changed when the present becomes the past, affected by context, memory, bias, or any number of other physical factors that we’re aware or unaware of at the time.
“Well, there’s nothing in the future/Nothing in the past/There is only just this moment/And you’ve got to make it last”
Hitchcock proves himself to be quite straightforward on the subject of time and the nature of perception, even if he has a reputation for weirdness. Maybe this is a new aspect of Hitchcock as a writer and performer that we might not have noticed before were it not presented in this context. Apart from Hitchcock’s singular presence and musical skill, it’s the intelligence around these kinds of subtle complexities that make Demme’s film a success, with the performance of “Glass Hotel” being one of it’s brightest moments.
Robyn Hitchcock is a prolific songwriter and active performer today. Investigate RobynHitchcock.com for touring news and new music releases.
Since this film was released, Jonathan Demme has created a number of major films, and small-scale independent movies. For a survey of reviews for this his work, check out the Jonathan Demme entry at AllMovie.