CBGB (Directed by Randall Miller)
It's not often for me that a movie meets expectations so exactly but this is one. I should have known. Those ubiquitous T-shirts commemorating the place being worn in their millions (hey - I owned one in the '80s before it was cool) and that scary story, just after it closed, that the place was destined to be relocated to Las Vegas. Plus, there's Foo Fighter in it. Despite best intentions, "CBGB" is the "Waterworld" of punk rock biopics. It is a train crash. It tells the story of Hilly Krystal (played by Alan Rickman), the owner of the world's most renowned musical shit-hole, without any regard to historical facts, chronology, plot, character development or the possibility that its target audience might just have functioning brains. All good cretins go to heaven but sitting through this is hell.
You know when you want a biopic to be good so hard it hurts? I was bumming around in London in the '80s when "Sid and Nancy" hit the big screen. I went to see it not once but twice. It wasn't as dire as "CBGB" but it wasn't "Apocalypse Now" either. Gary Oldham as Sid saved it even if the ending was silly and the roles of other people on Vicious' hopeless trajectory were ignored. Oliver Stone's take on The Lizard King ("The Doors") favoured entertainment over fact and deified J.D. Morrison in a way that glossed over his faults. More recently, "The Runaways" was trashy fun. You could put "CBGB" in the "trashy fun" oeuvre - if only it didn't try so hard to be something more.
I wasn't at CGBG in its heyday. I did go there a few times in the '80s. I paid my money and my homage. I pissed in those toilets. I drank Rolling Rock in the shell of a wrecked car in the backyard of the place. I stepped over comatose people on the sidewalk outside at 4am. I even got to see Hilly in situ. So I can't say I knew him or Merv the Bartender or LIsa, his daughter, the other central characters in this, apart from the bands. Hilly might have lucked out by being in the right place at the right time. The truth is that most of the bands that graced the rickety stage were not great. Most were re-hashing meat-and-potatoes rock and roll to try and ride the rather smelly slipstream of what was loosely termed Punk Rock, in the hope that they, too, could be signed by a major label.
So maybe Hilly wasn't a visionary but just a guy who gave a whole bunch of "street rock" (his words) acts some shelter from the storm of mainstream AOR blandness and disco. He certainly believed in originality and did allow a scene to develop (almost) organically. Whatever music emerged from his bar probably grew on him. "CBGB" strives to show all that but falls short. In its story, Hilly is a twice-bankrupted stumblebum with a generous streak but no idea of how to find his dick when he needs to piss. The facts, as they exist on the record from the accounts of other players, are stylised and distorted in a way that detracts from his story. In their rush to cram in cameos by people imitating lots of seminal bands (sometimes well), the filmmakers turn all of them into one-dimensional parodies. No wonder Hilly's ex-wife (who was a big part of the operation) wanted nothing to do with this. Not one Ramones song was harmed in the making of this film (the "band" appears playing a Joey song from one of his posthumous solo albums) although that might be a sign of the ongoing ructions between various ex-members' estates as much as respect for not sullying the collective legacy.
You're asking: 'Who gives a shit if Iggy Pop never duetted with Debbie Harry at CBGB before taking over the place and stage driving into the crowd?' or 'Why should we care if Dead Boys were a four-piece, not a trio, apart from their earliest shows?' Because facts are important. Talking Heads did not arrive at CBGB, fully formed. Television were not overnight sensations. Blondie were originally one step above inept and regarded as The Band Least Likely To Succeed. Debbie is portrayed as a simpering pricktease.
As far as I know (and on this one I care less) The Police did not audition for Hilly in some light bulb moment akin to conversion on the road to Damascus. Who cares if you can shoe horn in a mention of Sting, right, because he was such an important figure in pouting CBGB on the map, right? Maybe they could have shown AC/DC's sole and largely forgotten appearance. That would have broadened the appeal. The Ramones were critical in the Dead Boys coming to NYC. They deserved to be mooned by Stiv in this movie, not some anonymous kid in his mother's car. I could get down and dirty in detail ('90s band stickers on the wall during the '70s; songs that were not written, let alone recorded, appearing at the wrong times) but I'd disappear up my own arse. I should go watch a documentary, I know.
So...Dead Boys rolling a truck while out on the road and Johnny Blitz being stabbed were epochal moments that made Hill Krystal quit his business before a cleansing visit to his family's onetime chicken farm and rediscovering a love for music by playing a song on an acoustic guitar in the barn drives him back? Please Kill Me.
I know Hollywoodification of important stories to turn them into mass market fodder is a commercial inevitability. Ya gotta recoup your outlay somehow. At least Punk magazine gets more than a passing nod in this (John Holmstrom was a consultant but Legs McNeil, notably, was not) and the soundtrack is giving exposure to a bunch of long departed acts to a whole new generation.
"CBGB" is playing as a limited release in US theatres from October 11. Surely, it's heading direct to DVD everywhere else.