"CBGB" Revisited - Screen Week


By Zach Schepis

Photo by Adicarlo.

“This film is mostly true.”

So begins one of the opening captions to director Randall Miller’s film CBGB, a work that attempts to capture the essence of the thriving hub of NYC’s legendary ’70s punk scene, but in the eyes of critics everywhere fell flat on its face. Historically inaccurate, lip-syncing abound, not true to the raw movement — the film was lambasted by seemingly everyone, whether they were there or not. But perhaps they should have considered the film’s opening warning before they set their expectations for a visceral window into the past.

It’s hard to deny that the film comes off as scatter-brained and directionless at times. The comic book frames used to forge a loose connection between the venue and Punk Magazine do little more than distract from and trivialize the story. Fresca Soda is referenced in a handful of scenes throughout the film for no reason other than seemingly blatant product placement. Club owner and founder Hilly Kristal, played by the usually animate Alan Rickman, appears bored and static despite the profound happenings around him. And his dog Jonathan’s turds are given more on-screen attention than some of the key performers.

What’s more, the film makes no attempts at historical accuracy. Stickers on the walls of the venue broadcast bands that wouldn’t make their debut appearances until years later, the Bowery is rendered into little more than a junky graveyard, Iggy Pop never actually played there, no one of color is to be found anywhere… and no, punk wasn’t invented in a Connecticut basement.

Looking past the jumbled script and historical irrelevancies, audiences had yet another bone to pick with Miller’s production. Why does a film that chooses to document one of music’s most unabashed and callow uprisings end up being so silly and tame? In a review of the film on Roger Ebert’s website, Christy Lemire writes “it feels too superficial and safe, two words you would never use in talking about punk rock itself.” True, in the hands of Miller everything takes on a Hollywood sheen. Blondie looks like a glamorous diva and Lou Reed is nothing more than a stiff caricature. Even worse, rather than using new performances of the soundtrack, or even live recordings, we are instead treated to lip-synced studio renditions of tunes we’ve heard a million times before.

So despite a screenplay riddled with more problems than the club’s faulty stage, does anything actually hold up?

Yes, a few things do. There’s sheer entertainment value for one. (Who doesn’t want to see the Dead Boy’s front man get a blowjob on stage from a topless fan covered in whipped cream?) Despite being ridiculed for not being “punk” enough there are some scenes in the film that, although perhaps a bit comedic, still manage to be both abrasive and amusing. Rickman pours a liter of vodka into the fuel tank of a piano moving truck after breaking down on the side of the road, a rat named Burt terrorizes the fried brain of a junky cook, and there’s a gritty bathroom scene montage that might actually offer one of the film’s truly realistic views into what CBGB might have been like.

On another note, Hilly Kristal’s altruism ultimately shines through. According to all accounts, the venue’s benefactor was the essence of a giving, understanding, and selfless individual. In this regard the film is true to the mark. Sure, maybe he isn’t portrayed as the most competent manager, but the spirit is still intact. Pictured as a renegade baby who escapes his crib at the film’s onset and walks nearly three miles over dark country roads, Hilly Kristal’s defiance takes root in the story and grows into the seeds of the very movement he helped to bolster.

The last reason? The legacy itself, of course. Just before the credits roll a densely packed list floods the screen with all of the bands who came and served under the club’s legendary roof. “Hilly gave the stage to some 50,000 bands during CBGB’s 33-year tenure,” the audience reads, and the reminder doesn’t fall upon deaf ears. The musical landmark has been closed for over seven years, but the influence it bred will continue to rattle the foundations of what we hear for the rest of our lives.

No matter how the tale is spun, the fact that it continues to be told, and can still manage to stir up new found angst and reactionaries, pays tribute to the rebellious heart beating at the center of it all; a heart that won’t be tiring any time soon.