CBGB Review: An Entertaining Education on the Legendary Venue

cbgbAny rock & roll biopic is bound to be compromised in some fashion.

Mainly because the true spirit of rock involves a sort of spontaneity that the highly-calculated world of feature films can never fully capture.

Such is the case with the new film, “CBGB”, which tells the story of club owner Hilly Kristal and his legendary Bowery venue.

Nonetheless, the movie is worth checking out as an entertaining history lesson about one of the most important locations in the history of pop music.

The real CBGB club was the birthplace for much of the New York punk & New Wave scene of the mid-70s.  Although Kristal expected his venture to feature more folk-leaning artists (the name stood for “Country, BlueGrass and Blues”), he took a chance on featuring some of the earliest performances from the idiosyncratic new artists of the day, including Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, Patti Smith, the Ramones and many others.

As played in the film by the excellent Alan Rickman, Kristal is revealed as the curmudgeonly father figure to these bands, giving them a shot where few other venues would have.  But their captivating live performances caught the zeitgeist of the time and turned the club into ground zero for an increasingly influential scene.

Unfortunately, this is where the film falls a bit short.  In depicting these performances, the filmmakers have the actors lip-sync to the classic studio recordings of the bands in question, which can’t help but come off as patently unnatural and unrealistic.  It’s a tough call, as choosing having the actors sing the music themselves would be risky too, but in this case the original performances are so dynamic, so powerful and so spontaneous, that it is goofy to see someone try to mime them.

For example, Malin Akerman, who plays Debbie Harry, can only pale in comparison to the real Blondie singer, however much she captures Harry’s sexy charisma (and given that she has little to do in the movie beyond singing on stage, she, nor most of the other actors playing the musicians, have much of a chance to otherwise exercise their acting chops).

An exception to this problem is with the somewhat unheralded punk band the Dead Boys, who get more screen time because Hilly Kristal briefly managed the band.  Rupert Grint, of Harry Potter fame, deserves special mention as Cheetah Chrome, the incorrigible guitarist for the band, who embodies both the charm and the recklessness of many of the scene’s major players.  Consequently, it seems as if a little more care was put into making the Dead Boys’ chaotic live performances “in the moment,” which helps suspend disbelief.

The subject of the film is worthy, and there is a ton of original music selections from relevant bands played throughout the movie, making it an educational experience to anyone unfamiliar with the history of CBGB.

Hardly a perfect film, it does manage to give some insight on how some imperfect people managed to work together to make some perfect music.

ERIC J. LAWRENCE