The brisk biopic “CBGB” has a lot of reasons why to recommend it, but I’m not sure fidelity to facts is one of these things. So, if you know all about the famed punk incubator, then you can watch the movie and precede to impress/bore everyone by pointing out factual errors. For that kind of person, this situation is actually better than getting to watch a perfectly executed film about a cherished subject.
For the more casual viewers among us, “CBGB” provides a glib but fun look into the early, glory days of one of New York City’s most legendary — and now defunct — music clubs. Starring Alan Rickman as Hilly Kristal, a loveable loser whose plans to open a country music club in the Bowery and who ends up leading a musical revolution, this film is a veritable who’s-who of punk and rock musicians from the ’70s.
From the viewpoint of sheer nostalgia, “CBGB” is fun to watch. On the other hand, it’s a little like going to a Halloween party, where you can compare the relative success of your friend’s rock star costumes. There’s Debbie Harry, the Ramones, the Police, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop and more. Crammed into a mere 90 minutes, it’s just a cavalcade of rock star impressions, performed on the same little stage during a series of auditions and performances.
A slight plot, in which Hilly loses money trying to manage the band “The Dead Boys” and is generally browbeaten by his daughter into improving his accounting practices, is kept afloat by the excellent Rickman. Since he has to be stern in almost every other one of his films, I found this fast and loose character refreshing.
But surely, based as he was on a real guy, he was reduced to one dimension. As the credits rolls, we see the real Talking Heads thanking the real Kristal profusely at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, further driving home the point that he was nothing short of a saint. This is less than interesting.
All in all, this film, despite the prominent inclusion of dog poop, ran rather short on gritty realism. And I feel like glossing over punk rock isn’t very punk rock. This was VH-1 punk rock.
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