CBGB (The Movie): A Review

As a senior in college I spent spring break in NYC, staying at a cheap hostel on Bowery. It wasn’t until the morning that I saw CBGB across the street. For any kid growing up listening to alternative rock, the venue existed as some sort of shrine—where miracles happened, where mortals became rock ’n’ roll saints. Throughout college I made trips to Manhattan in an attempt to find such places. I wanted to visit the Strand bookstore, Village Vanguard, and the Guitar District. But during those years (2000-2004), NYC was quickly transforming into a world for the wealthy. Midtown had become corporate—smut shows were replaced by three-story Applebee’s. Even the slummy Bowery, home to generations of poor immigrants, seemed a little too slick and gentrified. Most of my time in the city was spent walking around neighborhoods, taking pictures, and daydreaming of Jacob Riis shooting photos, Beat poets endlessly talking, and punk graffiti kids crashing in loft squats. I could only afford to daydream. As a twenty-year-old kid going to a big state school that worshipped athletes, all I ever wanted was to be in the city reading, writing, and drinking cheap booze with other likeminded folks. I desperately love that clichéd moment in my life because there was hope of finishing school and joining that world.

So much of that romance existed in my heart because of stories and images from Kerouac’s Vanity of Duluoz, Nersesian’s The Fuck-Up, Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Ginsberg’s poetry. They left me hungry for the urban Bohemian experience. The stories and myths of that world filled my bored head for years. But what happens when those myths come to life on the silver screen?

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Watching the movie CBGB couldn’t touch the mythology that exists in my head. The actors were too LA—too skinny, too pretty, too recognizable from other films (for fuck sake, Rupert Grint, aka Ron Weasly from the Harry Potter series, plays Cheetah Chrome, the bassist for the Dead Boys). The concert posters on the walls looked professionally crumpled by an overly motivated USC intern. The leather worn by the actors shined like those of a high-priced hooker’s boots. A majority of the movie consisted of cameos of the Ramones, the Talking Heads, and even The Police, which gave the whole film a desperate feeling, like a new kid name dropping at a party. What I saw on the screen didn’t match up with what was in my head.

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(You can buy crumpled paper like this at Urban Outfitters for $9.99)

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Mimesis is the idea that words on a page mimic the world. In the case of film, we must look at the shots, script, and costumes. In essence, mimesis deals with the relationship between substance and style—the relationship between those two aspects of art creates an aesthetic experience for the audience. If there is tension between the viewer’s understanding of the world and the representation of the world created by the producer, the film’s illusion is broken. When the audience stops thinking about the characters and starts thinking about the director, casting director, and actors, the spell is broken. While this is done intentionally in meta-fiction, most popular entertainments are trying their best to avoid pointing to the frame that reminds the audience that they are watching a film or reading a book.

It’s my opinion that we shouldn’t see Rupert Grint but Cheetah Chrome. I do acknowledge that Grint resembles Chrome, but all I could see was Grint as Harry Potter’s sidekick, just like all I could see was Samuel L. Jackson dressed up as a fucking Jedi in Episode Three. This is a problem in an industry that depends on a star system and needs to make a return on investment. Grint broke the film’s spell for me. The studio-made filth lightly scattered about a depopulated, fake urban slum broke the spell. The heavy-handed name dropping and cheap jokes broke the spell.

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Finally, the movie is supposed to be about punk but it didn’t feel punk in the least. It had the content of punk and new wave but the feeling of corporate Hollywood. It’s like walking in a mall to see teeny-boppers shopping for Black Flag t-shirts with their parents’ credit cards.

Some fans of rock desire authenticity that can’t be bought, which is why sellouts and poseurs are so looked down upon. But why? A number of reasons. First, there is a moment before a band breaks and becomes popular. In those days, the fans feel like they belong to a secret society. There is intimacy and it’s based around aesthetics not wealth. But as bands get bigger, more people start jumping on board. The original fans can’t get in to shows or buy tickets, which suddenly cost an arm and a leg. Once the secret is out, the intimacy is gone. CBGB (the club) offered that sense of closeness for a community of artists. While the movie told the story of this moment, the film failed to emphasize this importance, although it did try. Instead it focused on trumpeting all the success stories while telling cheap jokes about the venue’s dirty bathroom and a bad stage.

Second, we live in a world whose primary mode of thinking is economic. Both music and film have always straddled the line between art and entertainment. For those who want to be in the world of art, a certain level of integrity must supersede the desire to earn money, that the work they create has some sense of vision and integrity. Many bands spend years working side jobs while pursuing their art; many never reap financial reward but have the reputation of being influential. The most obvious example is the poor African American blues musicians who influenced bands like the rich, white British bands like the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. But it can also be seen in how Minneapolis punk bands like Hüsker Du and the Replacements paved the way for Nirvana and Pearl Jam. Rock is heavily defined by an anxiety of influence. Riding coattails to fame and fortune is totally bitch because it says that the poseur lacks vision, talent, creativity, courage, and dignity. I am not saying Seattle is derivative of Minneapolis, the former’s success being heavily influenced by the rise of MTV. Unfortunately Hollywood only seems interested in making movies that are entertaining and will earn money. Major film studios fear originality and very rarely make art because there is a significant financial risk. This movie seemed more interested in the rock stars than the music, because they want a guaranteed return on investment. This business mindset is antithetical to punk, something addressed in the movie’s content but not in its style.

The question isn’t whether this movie is any good but whether any movie about punk rock, poetry, or bohemia will ever be good. Pandaemonium, Klimt, Sid & Nancy are all unwatchable. Basquiat was a good movie. I am interested to see Kill Your Darlings but fear that it will fall short for many of the reasons mentioned here. Art is such an internalized thing, such a mental and emotional thing. The moment they are externalized, they become hackneyed. Film, by definition, needs to be externalized. Characters have to say what they think; actors have to dramatize; movies need plots that fit ninety minutes. All of that needs to be neatly packaged into palpable cinematic delight. But that isn’t what happened in the Bowery, and CBGB (the film) didn’t lead the way—it rode the coattails of people who were there.

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