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Punk History, Embroidered Here And There

Oct 10, 2013
Originally published on October 11, 2013 2:54 pm

Loose, lively and agreeably unsolemn, the alt-culture biopic CBGB is an account of that Manhattan punk-rock crucible whose audience will likely be even smaller than the crowd that actually went to the club in the 1970s.

That's because to really enjoy Randall Miller's film, viewers not only probably need to have experienced the club in its formative years; they'll also need not to be too terribly invested in their own versions of what happened there. This is not a film for purists or quibblers.

It's called CBGB because that name is more iconic than "Hilly," but the story's focus is Hilly Kristal, the club owner who believed originality took precedence over paying the rent.

Of course, there wasn't a lot of competition for property on the Bowery in 1973, when Kristal (Alan Rickman) renamed his bar after the genres he intended to present: country, bluegrass, blues. It was only decades later that CBGB succumbed to real estate development pressures. According to the movie's chatty end credits, 5,000 bands played at the place before it closed in 2006.

After Kristal failed to attract a trad-music audience to the Thunderbird-soaked, grime-streaked neighborhood, the club was claimed by young bands — Television, Patti Smith Group, Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads are among the most famous — whose diverse styles were eventually grouped under the rubric "punk."

The movie also spends a lot of time with the more generic if intriguingly disaster-prone outfit Dead Boys. Why? Because Kristal decided to manage them, a choice that — like so many of his — had no financial upside.

Much of the action turns on Hilly and the club's staff, a largely easygoing lot save for pragmatic daughter Lisa Kristal (Ashley Greene), who struggles with CBGB's chaotic finances. Also introduced are the mainstays of Punk magazine, including editor-cartoonist John Holmstrom (Josh Zuckerman).

Like most of the supporting characters, Holmstrom doesn't add much to the narrative, but his presence is the rationale for turning some of the scenes into Punk-style drawings or animated sequences; these are among the ways the director thumbs his nose at literalness.

Rickman is too theatrical, and too British, to vanish entirely into the person of Hilly Kristal. But he's entertaining to watch, and ultimately one of the more persuasive actors in a movie that suffers from as many odd casting decisions as Lee Daniels' The Butler.

Perhaps Miller invents a CBGB performance by Iggy Pop because the movie's Iggy — Foo Fighter Taylor Hawkins — is more credible than its Lou Reed, Johnny Ramone or David Byrne. Better are Malin Akerman as Blondie's Debbie Harry, Stana Katic as singer turned producer Genya Ravan, and Mickey Sumner as Patti Smith. (A ringer for Sumner's real-life dad, Sting, also makes a brief appearance.)

Notable things and people are omitted, meanwhile, because the filmmakers couldn't get permission to include them; the movie's Ramones, for example, don't perform any Ramones tunes, a jarring exclusion.

Also problematic is that the actors lip-sync to slick studio recordings that don't particularly resemble the musicians's more ragged live performances. And some songs, notably Smith's "Because the Night," date from after the period the film depicts.

But then while many episodes in this episodic flick are based on real events, they're often poetically embroidered. The club did have a problem with leaks, but that doesn't mean Television's Tom Verlaine was hit by a stream of water just after he sang, "I was listening, listening to the rain." In a docudrama, such fibs would be inexcusable. But in a movie that's less historical account than way-off-Broadway musical, they're kind of fun.

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