Songs of heartbreak lead to movie for Arlington Heights woman
Like many happy Valentine's Day tales of love, this one starts with a soul-crushing heartbreak.
"It was a very difficult time," remembers Arlington Heights native Alyssa Robbins, 38, who had a master's degree from Columbia University, a prestigious teaching job at The Berkeley Carroll School prep school in Brooklyn, and a promising career as a songwriter and singer when her serious girlfriend pulled the relationship rug out from under her. The romantic anguish was hard on Robbins' psyche but good for her creative juices, as she put all that heartache into breakup songs and hit the road.
"And you fool me once. And you fool me twice. And then I fall down a rabbit hole again," croons Robbins on her song "Rabbit Hole." You can hear that song and a host of others by Robbins in the just-released award-winning movie "Becks," which includes an all-star cast and is based on Robbins' life.
"I was in such a lonely place," Robbins says. "I look back and say, 'Wow! I was in a bad moment in my life and now there's a film about it.' Pretty bizarre. It warms the cockles of my heart. I'm elated."
"Becks," available in limited theaters but now streaming on iTunes, YouTube, Amazon and others, has won honors at the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival, the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival and other gay film festivals. It also was named the Best U.S. Fiction Feature Film at the Los Angeles Film Festival and deals with the universal angst of finding one's place in the world amid all the ups and downs of relationships. "That's just something everybody experiences," says Robbins, who recently celebrated her third anniversary with partner Lacy Hawkins.
During her dark time, Robbins came home to her widowed mom's house in Palatine, where she wrote the movie's climactic anthem, "Home."
"It's really about finding the place where I was welcome and loved and cared for," Alyssa Robbins says. "My mom is the first person I played it for."
In the movie, Alyssa's character, played by Tony-winner Lena Hall, who goes by the nickname Becks, has some memorable clashes with her mother, played by Christine Lahti. In real life, Alyssa and her mom have a much better relationship.
"She calls every day," says Marilyn Robbins.
"My mom is a former nun. She's very accepting and loving," says the songwriter, who notes that her movie mom is also a former nun.
"My children make a big deal of that," Marilyn Robbins says with a laugh, explaining how it's been a long time since she was with the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in Milwaukee. She met her husband, Jim, who died in 1998, when they both were singing in an opera chorus at the University of Michigan, where she was earning a master's degree in music education. Marilyn Robbins served as director of music and liturgy at St. Edna Catholic Church in Arlington Heights and worked with other parishes. Alyssa Robbins' sister Amy Speek is an opera singer joining her daughter Mika, 10, in next month's Sinfonietta Bel Canto signing competition in Downers Grove, and her brother, who goes by the name Danny Rockett, is a Broadway actor who has done lots of voice-over work and is known to Chicago Cubs fans for his part in the Son Ranto Show.
Performing her songs at bars (and even a 17-seat diner) in towns across the Midwest, Alyssa says the movie grew out of one memorable performance in St. Louis. "It was just a strange night with bizarre characters," she remembers, noting that the bartender was a "crotchety old guy" who had a gun. "By the time I was done, he was crying."
Her friend, writer and director Elizabeth Rohrbaugh, asked if she could work with Robbins on a movie, and before long, Robbins was collaborating with composer Steve Salett to incorporate her songs into the movie, which also stars Mena Suvari, Dan Fogler, Michael Zagen and Hayley Kiyoko.
"There's some snarl and gravel to it, but deep down, it's about my feelings," Robbins says of her songs, which are a mix of folk, rock, Bonnie Raitt and Janis Joplin.
"When she was in a creative kind of mood, she would play the guitar and sing in a backroom," remembers her mom, who is active in the One in Love LGBT ministry, which meets from 10 a.m.-noon the second Saturday of each month at Holy Family Catholic Church in Inverness. "She was a very sensitive and very loving young woman. I'm so proud of her with the journey she has taken and is taking."
In high school, Alyssa Robbins went to the prom and on dates with boys. She came out as gay during a college phone call from New York.
"I was surprised, really," remembers Marilyn Robbins, whose reaction is a perfect way to end a Valentine's Day tale. "I sat down and wrote her a letter. It was a love letter."