Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Cinema File #257: "CBGB" Review


Whenever a movie is purported to be based on a true story, even before you begin to ask yourself about the veracity of the claim, the first and most important question should always be "is this a story that needs to be told." It sounds harsh, especially when you're talking about biopics of real people who may or may not still be alive, as a part of us instinctively thinks everyone must have a life worth at least a 90 page script, as all of ours obviously are. Often they are deserving, as in the recent Lovelace, but sometimes there comes a point where we have to acknowledge that there's just not enough there to merit the effort. Earlier this year, Fruitvale Station listlessly detailed the last day in the life of a man who, no offense to his surviving friends and family, was only dramatically relevant for the harrowing few moments leading up to his death. One would think that Hilly Krystal, the subject of the new film CBGB who founded the titular club, might have had an impact on our culture substantial enough to qualify. And maybe he did. Maybe there's a great movie in this true story just waiting to be told, but you would never know it from watching the latest one trying to tell it.




CBGB attempts to chronicle the beginnings of the American Punk music scene from the vantage point of one of its early geographical loci, a small run down bar originally intended to showcase Country, Blue Grass, and Blues (hence the acronym). The movie fashions itself as the story of Krystal, a bleary eyed eccentric with an anarchist dedication to originality, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a pathological inability to manage a business. The only problem is, whatever insights might be gleaned about the so-called "Godfather of Punk" are lost in an inscrutable performance by Alan Rickman, and eventually just forgotten about altogether as this rock luminary's epic tale of non-committal shrugging gives way to a series of boring dramatizations of the first live performances of famous bands who got their start at this club. I lost count of how many times the characters stopped what they were doing to soak up the profound importance of being witness to the first few chords of a song that we the audience know would later be well known. That's all this movie is - "Hey, remember Television? What about Blondie, they were awesome, right?"


And sorry if my bias is showing through for a moment, but no, no they weren't. Forgive me if I can't bring myself to get too excited about these visionary musical pioneers who made up the first bands to play this particular brand of shitty unlistenable music, but I just don't get what all the fuss is about, especially in light of the other true story about punk music that came out this year that revealed they weren't the first ones at all, just the first white ones. "Oh, but its an attitude and a tweak of cultural mores". Go fuck yourself. Anytime a musician has to go out of their way to tell you they're a rebel, whether they call themselves punks, metal heads, or thugs, they're not. Its an act, which would be perfectly fine if so many of those who perform it didn't demand to be taken so seriously. To the film's credit, the phoniness of it all is presented pretty clearly, though largely by accident due to waify young actors unable to believably embody such outrageous personas, and every "live" performance dubbed over from an obviously pitch perfect studio recording. The truth that there is no truth in this art is borne out in the attempt to capture it as authentically as possible, which says more than I can about how intellectually bankrupt this movement was.


I want to like Alan Rickman in a role he clearly has a lot of (extremely restrained) passion for, and I'm not quite sure if he's doing a bad job of playing this bizarre individual, or too good a job, but either way the end result does not make for an engaging protagonist. I'd say he comes across as drugged out if the movie didn't conspicuously avoid ever showing him imbibing, as if to suggest an uncharacteristic sobriety for someone in his social circle, and while the reason for his constant psychological vacancy is an intriguing mystery at first, its not one the movie has any interest in exploring, and it becomes painful to watch long before you even realize you aren't going to get an answer for it. What's even worse is that he's clearly supposed to be some kind of hero, but as the tension quickly mounts regarding the fate of the bar and whether or not it will survive its crippling debt, I can't get past the fact that its entirely his fault. He refuses to pay rent as a matter of principle even when he has the money, and then he acts like its so unfair that he might lose yet another bar to yet another bankruptcy. Much like the messy punk ethos the movie glamorizes, I just can't find this kind of stupid cute or endearing.


Even if any of these insufferable characters or this flimsy excuse for a plot/lame karaoke music video did suggest to me in anyway a story worth telling, its still being told incredibly badly. For one thing, the entire thing is interlaced with this annoying comic book style where panels randomly appear on screen complete with "hilarious" word balloons. I can't really describe why this is so annoying in text, as its something you just have to see, but suffice it to say it would have completely taken me out of the movie if I had ever been given any reason to be brought into it. This narrative device centers around the formation of the (apparently) famous PUNK Magazine, but this second punk-centric origin story is just wedged haphazardly into an already crowded movie filled with too many incidental characters I gather I'm supposed to care about, and the only purpose it seems to serve is to have someone there to wax philosophical about all these sophomoric losers as if they're important. I suppose its fan service for music history buffs, but it all goes by so fast and its never really established why I should find any of it interesting, let alone entertaining.


I feel a little guilty trashing on the mission of CBGBs to be honest, because one of my favorite bands, They Might Be Giants, actually got their start there. I notice that the film conspicuously doesn't mention them, I suppose because their nerdy art rock image at the time didn't quite fit with the tone of the film, even if they did fit right at home in the anything goes atmosphere of the actual establishment. I would argue that if any bands were the true punks of the era, if punk means throwing up a middle finger at conventionality anyway, it was bands like TMBG, who actually cared about their music and tried to bring a niche sensibility into the mainstream, to convert pop music from the inside into something worth listening to, instead of just wailing like an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But that approach to music apparently isn't important to the makers of this movie, even with the brief appearance of The Talking Heads (too much of a well known fixture to leave out). This is a movie designed to make the idiots look like poets and philosophers, and the result is as vapid and pointless as you would expect.
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