If you think these are The Ramones, man do I have a movie for you.
CBGB is a dreadful film. Dramatically inert and ridiculously inauthentic, the whole thing has about as much punk credibility as an off-the-rack $30 Ramones t-shirt from Hot Topic. From its stupendously inept chronological fuck-ups (walls are covered with band stickers before any bands have played there) to its unintentionally hilarious depictions of rockers like Stiv Bators, Richard Hell and Iggy Pop, CBGB belongs in a very special place, a hideously horrible hellish place, reserved for films like Oliver Stone’s hateful The Doors and the Tom Cruise does Axl Rose crapfest Rock of Ages. CBGB really really sucks shit.
The film fails in almost every way as a history of the legendary rock venue. But seeing as it’s ultimately not really about CBGB but its founder, Hilly Kristal, one might be tempted to forgive its failures in its depiction of the club, the bands and the downtown New York scene of the 1970s. If the movie somehow had managed to enter the head of Kristal and made him the compelling oddball the writers and director seems to think he is (and history suggests he must have been), then maybe CBGB might have succeeded as a character study of a ramshackle visionary. After all, it has the benefit of a charismatic actor, Alan Rickman, playing Kristal. But no, the so-called godfather of punk, comes off as a likable but totally uninteresting schlub. He walks through the movie with a detached and slightly bewildered expression on his face that might kindly be described as Zen-like or less kindly as clueless. This is not a man who created history but had history thrust upon him and at no point seemed to quite comprehend what the fuck was going on. In reality, Hilly may have been hard to get a handle on but he was far shrewder and savvy than the malleable lump in the movie. The appearance of detachment was in part the result of having to counter the intensity of his ex-wife and daughter, both of whom became legendary for their high-strung presence at the door and throughout the club. Someone had to keep the broads from harshing the mellow. Just talking to them on the phone was enough to turn your nuts to mothballs.
As to the films hilariously amateurish recreation of CBGB during its heyday, the characterizations of the punk rock pioneers in the film would be character assassination if they weren’t so fucking ludicrous. Some of this shit has to be seen to be believed. From a hectoring, shrewish Patti Smith (uncharacteristically calling her fans “motherfuckers” and singing “Because The Night” two years before Springsteen wrote it) to a pathetically sexless Iggy Pop or Lou Reed, looking like a cross between Eminem and the Pillsbury Doughboy, or the tight-ass actress playing Debbie Harry with absolutely no feel for the delightfully clunky, self-aware, sex-kitten charm of the Bowery’s platinum blondie, this movie manages to suck all of the rock ‘n’ roll magic out of every single performer it supposedly celebrates. But it really hits bottom in the way The Ramones are treated. The boys from Queens were four extraordinarily interesting human beings. They were smart, they knew what they were doing and their sense of rock history was deep and profound. The movie treats them like losers, takes them at face value and totally misses out on the passion and brilliance of their concept. Time has proven their immortality. The movie diminishes them in a way that I find obscene.
In fact, the movie diminishes everything it touches. The bands that made CBGB the center of the rock ‘n’ roll universe for several remarkable years are given zero credit for their art. The movie is more interested in the cockroaches, junkies and rats that rattled around CBGB than the extraordinary music that was forged within its decaying walls. CBGB, the movie, is an insult to every band that played there. It is particularly infuriating that the film insinuates that it took The Police performing at the club to legitimize it. I was at the Police gig. The joint was half empty and while the band was terrific there was no sense of history being made. It didn’t come close to those nights that The Cramps, X Ray Spex, Bad Brains or Willie Loco Alexander obliterated the molecular structure of the joint and instantaneously remade it in a higher form of architectural bliss. Or one of the many nights Suicide or James Chance terrorized their fans, reminding us that art ain’t necessarily pretty.
Despite artists like Bad Brains, The Planets, Living Colour, Poly Styrene, The Voidoids, my band (The Nails), James “Blood” Ulmer, The Dead Kennedys, Fishbone and countless other groups featuring Black musicians that played CBGB, there’s not a single black face in CBGB . Not one. The only dark skin in the all-white mix are some stereotypical, knife-wielding, Puerto Rican street creeps stabbing Dead Boy Johnny Blitz. While historically accurate, it’s a shame that this is the only scene in which the viewer is made aware of the rich cultural diversity of the Lower East Side in the years before Starbucks and John Varvatos.
Fortunately, I can’t imagine CBGB finding an audience willing to spend a dime on this glob of pustulating spit. The film’s clueless director Randall Miller has taken a stage dive into the arms of nothingness and somewhere Stiv Bators is quietly snickering at the goofiness of it all.
For the record, I knew many of the musicians portrayed in this movie. I knew how they moved, how they talked and how they looked on and offstage. CBGB gets it wrong in almost every way in how the actors portray these musicians. In some cases it goes so far as to be insulting. My friend Terry Ork is particularly done an injustice. He comes off as some small-time hustler with visions of grandeur. In reality, Terry was a guy who worked a day job (one he quite enjoyed) in order to finance his indie label, Ork Records. He believed in the music, the art of it, money wasn’t his driving force. Stiv Bators was a sweet and gracious cat who in no way resembles the dim-witted thug depicted in the movie. And I can assure you that Iggy Pop was not hanging out at CBGB, lonely and half-naked, looking to get his cock sucked. As to the guys who were there and participated in the creation of this flick, Cheetah Chrome and John Holmstrom, I can’t imagine you’re too proud of the outcome. I hope you were paid well because the movie makes you look like fools.