Forget the Acting, Songs Tell CBGB's Cinematic Story

CBGB, the movie about the iconic club, opens in theaters in a week; but, in an exclusive arrangement with DirecTV Cinema, it's been playing on demand for the last month. So, I rented the movie because it's cheaper to pay 11 bucks and drink PBR at home than take the family to the theater and pay 11 bucks for a tub of popcorn.

How punk rock of me.

Anyway, someone who is qualified to critique the movie on its cinematic merits may come along and do just that in weeks to come, so I won't delve deep into whose performance is award-winning (none) or if the screenplay is especially good (not really). Instead, I'll just say if you love music, especially the kind that came from this hallowed establishment, you should at least rent CBGB on video.

There are some things about the film that are off-putting, to say the least. Let's get that stuff out of the way. First, the story is told, from beginning to end, with a comic-book motif. Periodically, the live action will be framed like comics, complete with words like BANG! or thought bubbles replacing dialogue. Although this was very annoying, I did laugh when a thought bubble was attributed to a large rodent who remarked on the state of the Bowery alleyway behind the bar.

And, if you aren't a fan of the music, there's not enough climactic action to keep your interest. The crux of the conflict is that CBGB's late, legendary owner, Hilly Kristal (played by Alan Rickman), was a pretty bad money manager.

If a boring movie presented in a grating format doesn't interest you, you may not have read this far into this faux-review anyhow. If you're still with me, it's because of the music, which is the one of the two main reasons to watch.

I don't know much about biopics, but I know moviegoers won't watch them if filmmakers cast the wrong person to play a real person. A lot of punk rockers, young and old, are going to despise the movie solely because of a few A-listers in the cast. It's not that big a deal.

Review continues on the next page.

Malin Akerman is good enough as Debbie Harry. If you don't agree, just blink a few times and you won't be seeing her again. Rupert Grint, the former Ron Weasley, is cast as Cheetah Chrome, a member of The Dead Boys. He and Rickman, Harry Potter's Snape, are back together again. If only Daniel Ratcliffe had been available to play the late Stiv Bators.

It's fun to see relative unknowns like Jared Carter, a dead ringer for Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, or the group of doppelgangers assembled as The Ramones. I found it personally satisfying when The Big Bang Theory's Johnny Galecki, cast as Television manager Terry Ork, sidles next to Iggy Pop (Foo Fighters' Taylor Hawkins) and offers to give him head. That's right. The guy who lives with Sheldon, proposing a blow job to Dave Grohl's drummer.

One thing the film's producers (including Kristal's daughter Lisa, portrayed in the film by Ashley Greene) did right was use the original music of the artists who made CBGB famous. The actors aren't trying their best karaoke, they're lip-syncing American punk rock's earliest hits. Sting's real-life daughter, Mickey Sumner, transforms into punk goddess Patti Smith, looking appropriately disheveled. But you'll barely notice her when the real Smith's voice kicks in on "Because the Night."

The movie, at its heart, is about music, a certain type, and we're not gypped of it. What other film could give you Johnny Thunders' "All By Myself," New York Dolls' "Chatterbox," Tuff Darts' "Fun City," and Richard Hell's "Blank Generation," within minutes of one another? It's music from a certain time and a specific place and those songs, more than anything shot by the camera, tell the story of CBGB.

At one point in the movie, Rickman's Kristal says, "These kids have something to say... we really should listen."

Maybe Kristal should have managed The Ramones instead of The Dead Boys, or not have allowed so many people to have free fun in his club; but, the movie proves he had an adventurous love of music that allowed 50,000 bands to perform on his club's stage, many which began there and became our musical heroes. That's worth 11 bucks, in my opinion.

CBGB plays in select Houston-area theaters October 16 and 17. See dandeentertainment.com for details.


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