Let’s get this out of the way: I wasn’t there. CBGB and the New York punk scene it fostered had their heyday almost a decade before I was born. By the time I made it to the club — exactly twice — it was the turn of the millennium. The first time, I arrived by cab from a friend’s house on the Upper East Side, ordered a coffee (I was 16), saw a band called The Candy Darlings (who initially interested me only because of their Warhol-related name, although I remember loving them), and had to run home to make curfew before a then-unknown-outside-of-New-York act called Yeah Yeah Yeahs took the stage. I don’t even remember who I was there to see the second time. What I do recall is talking all night to a somewhat incomprehensible British punk kid who looked like the lost Ramone and had made CBGB a prime stop on his Greyhound tour of the US — and having to abruptly duck out of our conversation, or whatever else was about to happen between us, because it was time to catch the bus back to someone’s house in Jersey.
I would move to the city about four years later, in 2005, but by the time I got there, CBGB no longer appealed to me. The bands I liked didn’t play there — it was mostly high-school hardcore from the suburbs or ’70s-’80s throwbacks revisiting an old haunt — and the historical mystique that lured me there as teenager couldn’t compete with the stacked calendars of Bowery Ballroom, Cake Shop, and the DIY venues popping up all over Brooklyn. The next fall, CBGB closed, and I made the requisite complaints even though, in truth, I wouldn’t miss it.
I’m no expert on the place, in other words — but I’m pretty sure I came away from those two nights (and a rapt reading of Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s essential oral history of New York punk, Please Kill Me) with more of a feel for it than the folks behind CBGB the movie, an account of Hilly Kristal’s unwitting founding of one of rock’s most important landmarks. The reviews taking director Randall Miller and his co-writer Jody Savin to task for the film’s lack of historical authenticity have already started to appear; Marc Campbell at Dangerous Minds, who really did spend time at CBGB in the ’70s and knew plenty of the people depicted in the film, wrote an especially colorful, coruscating takedown.
But it doesn’t even take an eyewitness to point out how off-base the portrayals are: We get all of the Ramones’ dopiness and none of their brilliance — perhaps partially because their estate had the good sense not to license their music to it. Taylor Hawkins isn’t so much playing Iggy Pop as recreating selected poses from Mick Rock’s photos of him. And McNeil and his Punk cohort John Holmstrom (whose artwork appears all over the film, and who says he “met with the filmmakers early on” but did not consult on the final product) seem like they’re on an episode of That ’70s Show. The female characters come off especially terribly; Miller and Savin seem to have confused Patti Smith’s persona with Lydia Lunch’s, and poor Malin Akerman was apparently instructed to play Debbie Harrie as a streetwalker. Alan Rickman isn’t atrocious as Kristal, but hints of Snape slip into his face and voice every now and then. Songs are performed with no regard for chronology. New York accents are uniformly appalling. And let’s not even talk about the brief appearance of Kyle Gallner’s Lou Reed Halloween costume. At the screening I attended, it had everyone laughing out loud.
As painful as it is to sit through all of the above (sadly, CBGB isn’t even interesting enough in its badness to become a camp classic), the individual inaccuracies aren’t actually what make the film so offensive. Plenty of movies play fast and loose with names and dates and composite characters while still doing justice to the history they’re fictionalizing. Take Todd Haynes’ glam-rock homage Velvet Goldmine, for example, which is more fan fiction than biopic but still manages to capture what was so exhilarating about David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Marc Bolan in the ’70s. (Ewan McGregor’s Iggy would have eaten Hawkins’ for hungover breakfast, also, but I digress.)
Where Haynes succeeds and Miller fails is in finding the soul of the era each is celebrating, which in the case of punk rock means the sense of a scene and the energy around it. We see Blondie and Television and the Dead Boys and the Ramones in isolation, performing their most famous songs and selling themselves to Hilly (whose role in all of it remains rather unclear) and haunting the corners of the club. But we never get to watch any of these people interacting in ways that elucidate how they ended up changing music forever, or even just getting trashed together and talking shit. Punk, here, is rendered as not a movement so much as a sort of Star Search: Junkies and Weirdos Edition — and the result is just as boring as that suggests.
If you want to know about CBGB, read Please Kill Me. Unless you’re morbidly curious about how one of the loudest, strangest, and most irreverent and original moments in rock history can be transformed into a jukebox musical for the entertainment of precisely no one, there’s no need to see CBGB.