In the “top secret” filming location of Ted Leo’s music video for “Bottled in Cork,” I am waiting to choke a punk-rocking goon with my polka-dot ascot. Director Tom Scharpling sent a casting call two days prior, instructing fans to attend the shoot wearing nothing but their “finest theater-going or punk-rocking attire.” Beside me, this chick wearing a tutu and platinum Gene Simmons combat boots looks ready to stomp my Fela!-loving ass. But all speculation is put to rest when a member of Scharpling’s crew saunters into the middle of the Bell House’s bar area. “So, what you’re waiting for today,” she explains, “is a rock musical starring Ted Leo & the Pharmacists.”
Soon the 60 or so punk miscreants/theatre-goers and I are seated in front of the Bell House’s stage, where the holy trinity of punk rock themes — “SEX,” “DEATH,” and “ANARCHY SIGN” — are graffitied onto the four news clipping-plastered, skull-brandishing panels that serve as the backdrop. “I like your look, you sit in the front,” says a crew member to one of the punks, whose latest tattoo is a lighthouse and earliest is the word “ADORABLE” spelt out below the knuckles. “I like your look, you sit next to her,” she instructs me, the hoighty-toighty ascot boy.
Once we’re all seated, Scharpling enters the stage and asks, “You know the Green Day musical?” The crowd starts booing. “It’s sort of like a spoof on that,” Scharpling concludes, later announcing that actor John Hodgman (the PC to Justin Long’s Mac!) will portray an unflinching, praise-happy critic. Hodgman enters room, kissing the extended hands of female theater-goers. A man extends his hand, too. Hodgman holds it gently, then smacks it away.
The camera crew adjusts the lighting and grabs a couple of basic crowd shots, all while an unassuming Ted Leo meanders on stage and plugs in his guitar. It’s intermission time. He is dressed in character as “Teddy Punkstar,” with hole-in-the-crotch skinny jeans, CBGB t-shirt, and a multi-zipper leather jacket. “This is a stage costume, by the way,” he reassures us. “I’m going to play a new song.” After sitting down, Leo chugs away at some power chords and unveils his latest nasal-powered anthem–a premiere, payment for the gathered crowd.
Leo played an impromptu 10-minute solo set featuring “Bleeding Powers” and “Timorous Me,” then positioned himself behind one of the panels. He was preparing for a dance scene (basically, a jazzercise leg-pump on repeat) with his band. Leo possesses Richard Simmons nimbleness, while Marty Key, James Canty, and Chris Wilson lag behind like track team dropouts. Meanwhile, the Gene Simmons tutu girl and her friends weave in between the band as backup dancers. To praise this spectacle, we are handed roses with the instruction to “hit whichever band member is closest.” I successfully spear Wilson, the drummer, in the beard.
The flower-pelted Ted Leo & the Pharmacists exit stage, thank the audience and head to Generation Records for an in-store performance. Scharpling returns to film audience reactions, as follows:
SCENE 1: “Happy!”
SCENE 2: “GASP”
SCENE 3: “Oh my god, he’s dead!”
SCENE 4: “Reflectively shed a tear.”
The progression chronicles the life and times “Teddy Punkstar,” who sells out to big label execs, rejects a loving fan, clutches his chest and then dies. “I know you’re laughing now,” Scharpling warns us about Punkstar’s unhappy end, “but that scene is sad.”