J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

CBGB: The House of Punk

Hillel “Hilly” Kristal was the first professional club owner (broadly defined) to book bands like the Ramones, Talking Heads, and the Police.  However, when he decided to manage an act, he chose the Dead Boys.  Right, so he was not a great businessman, but his club spawned a million t-shirts.  The famous Bowery venue’s creation story gets the big screen treatment in director-co-writer Randall Miller’s CBGB (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

At first, CBGB’s big claim to fame was the Fresca on-tap.  A one-time manager of the Village Vanguard, Kristal’s original music policy was country, blue grass, and blues—hence CBGB.  That quickly changed when he started booking bands involved in the nascent punk scene.  They were dirt cheap and already had intense followings.  Soon, CBGB becomes the place to be, attracting Zeitgeisty music writers, poser record label execs, and kids drawn to punk’s nihilistic aesthetic.  Eventually, Kristal’s daughter Lisa takes control of the books, but his financial misadventures with the Dead Boys nearly ruins everything.

Essentially, Miller’s CBGB has the tone of an early premium cable movie, distilling all the ragged edges of the early punk scene into a breezy cocktail of gossip and name-dropping.  At times, it is oddly distracting, like those long format informercials for classic rock compilation CDs that are impossible to turn away from late at night.  Clearly, Miller is hoping viewers will be content to point and exclaim: “look there’s the Ramones—and Patti Smith—and Iggy Pop—and Debbie Harry—and Sting.”  However, whenever the film takes a stab at interpersonal drama, it falls flat on its face.

Alan Rickman might sound like an odd choice to play Kristal, the native New Yorker—and with good reason.  Throughout the film, he sounds and acts like he just walked off the set of Sense and Sensibility.  He conveys no affinity for this grimy milieu and his exaggerated irresponsibility shtick becomes grating over time. 

At least the celebrity impersonations are adequate enough, if you are not deeply invested in the classic punk scene.  Ahna O’Reilly and Josh Zuckerman also nicely capture the exuberance of youth caught up in its moment as music journalist-turned-filmmaker Mary Harron and Punk magazine founder and illustrator John Holmstrom.  The strategy of animating the pages of Punk to serve as transitional devices is debatable, but at least it puts some pep in the film’s step.

The movie version of CBGB is unlikely to satisfy anyone who was there at the time and certainly will not make anyone regret they missed the club’s heyday.  Too slick for its own good, CBGB opens this Friday (10/11) at the Village East.

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