New York City's legendary venue, CBGB, has become a sort of religious musical entity. There's so much passion and energy behind the name alone that trying to recapture its spirit is fighting an uphill battle. On Tuesday, October 8, "CBGB: The Motion Picture" made its theater debut at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in NYC as part of the 2013 CBGB Music and Film Festival. Director Randall Miller ("Class Act," "The Sixth Man") already had the odds stacked against him for trying to bring such an antithetic subject of counterculture through the glitz and glamour of the silver screen. While "CBGB: The Movie" isn't exactly the tribute that this delicate subject deserves, it works best as a musical celebration of the club's spirit; as long as you don't take it too seriously.
The late Hilly Kristal founded the notoriously divey club to highlight (as the name suggests) country, bluegrass, and blues music. In the '70s and '80s, however, CBGB organically became a meeting and breeding ground for a number of music's most legendary punk, hardcore, and new wave artists. The Ramones, Patti Smith, The Talking Heads, The Shirts, The Dead Boys, Blondie, Joan Jett and so many other legends used the venue as their personal playground at one point or another.
The problem with "CBGB: The Movie" is the audiences' expectations. There's so much content here that has the power educate, inspire, and excite a broader demographic than the one that has a direct connection to it. Whether or not Randall Miller was the right person to pull off that feat is debatable. But, his background in comedy coupled with the naturally hysterical anecdotes tied to CBGB made for a campy, fun, and genuinely hilarious movie. The comic book aesthetic worked perfectly for the tone that Miller had set up. A sort of "Scott Pilgrim" meets an underdeveloped "Almost Famous," Miller definitely had a younger generation in mind than the one that experienced this era.
Alan Rickman was perfect as a dejected Hilly Kristal. At times when the whirlwind of characters/musicians being introduced became exhausting, Rickman was always the anchor. It was a motley crew of a cast with Rupert Grint (Harry Potter) and Justin Bartha (The Hangover) each giving standout performances as two-thirds of The Dead Boys. Most of the characters were personified caricatures of the legendary people they represented. While they'll definitely make you laugh, they all further sensationalized the telling of CBGB's story.
Chances are if you were there, CBGB is nothing like Miller's film depicts it to be. In a perfect world, the motion picture version of this rock tale would be a grittier and seedier one rooted in a more down to earth reality. But, that wasn't Miller's intention. At the red carpet theater premier of the movie, Miller introduced the film by disclaiming, "I want you guys to have a good time. I told the sound guys to crank it up so you could all have fun." From a musical standpoint the movie was just that, fun; even if it did seem counterintuitive to the then elusive punk scene it helped spawn.
When "Psycho Killer" starts playing or Sting's voice blares through the speakers during "Roxanne" it's nearly impossible to not get excited by it. Miller isn't trying to recreate CBGB precisely; he's putting this subject on a platform that the insiders will get and the outsiders will be compelled to watch. If you're looking for a right of passage directly back to that time period, "CBGB: The Movie" isn't it. But, if you want to celebrate the music and people of this cultural landmark with a few laughs and a playlist of classic tunes, then there's something special to be taken away from the movie. It's definitely not perfect. But, taken at face value there's plenty of gold to be mined from it.