The CBGB biopic is out this week, and with it, the collective sound of every living old punk groaning. As we wrote in the review, this thing is a real stinker–a mostly turgid, boring-as-hell, campy slog. There’s a lot the film misses, but that’s forgivable, we suppose: It’s hard to wrap up that much history in 90 minutes. Things were bound to get left out. What’s more irksome are the things the movie gets wrong; some of them glaring, some admittedly nitpicky. Anyway, we decided to get our Neil deGrasse Tyson on and point out some of the film’s missteps. Hey, ho, let’s go…
1. Its depiction of Hilly Kristal
We’ll start with what they got right: Hilly Kristal was an extremely giving and generous man.To its credit, CBGB the movie shows ample evidence of that–Hilly pulls junkies off the street to give them jobs, pays out of pocket for tours of bands he believes in, bails friends out of jail, and generally has such a lack of ego that he often puts himself dead last. When we first meet grown-up HIlly in the film he’s already run two clubs into the ground, and the legal battles and failed rent payments that would eventually force him out of 315 Bowery show he may have not been a stickler for details, but CBGB largely depicts him as a doormat incapable of much, especially a daunting task like, say, running one of the world’s most renowned clubs. Which is odd. Because that’s what he did. HE RAN CBGB. It would be like Tom Hank’s character in Apollo 13 having no idea how to fly a space shuttle, or Denzel Washington portraying Malcolm X as a guy who want to start a fuss.
2. The complete lack of anyone of color
You could file this under “couldn’t fit everything” but it strikes us as odd that, with a storied and well-documented history of bands with members of color playing CBGB–Bad Brains, Living Colour, Fishbone, Poly Styrene, James “Blood” Ulmer, The Dead Kennedys–that not one of them gets shown, let alone mentioned (the Voidoids, at least, get a brief snippet of “Blank Generation” played over a scene). In fact, the only people of color depicted in the entire film are a Latin gang that gets into a knife fight with The Dead Boys after the latter pulls some super “punk” moves (see No. 7) in a convenience store.
3. There are stickers on the wall of CBGB before any bands have actually played CBGB
In the movie HIlly decides to open a country, bluegrass and blues bar in the heart of the Bowery, and before anyone even plucks a note–before the place has even become a venue, hosted one event or become any semblance of what it would later be–the walls are covered with band stickers. This is quite a feat, especially given some of those bands, by the clubs founding in ’73, have yet to form.
4. Punk did not start in a Connecticut basement
CBGB begins with a (literal) record scratch moment. You thought punk began at 315 Bowery. Nope. It began in a basement in Connecticut with two ne’er-do-wells, John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil. There, according to the film, the two created Punk magazine, and thusly punk. Never mind that you can’t have a zine that covers punk if punk doesn’t already exist (there could be no Village Voice without a village, after all), or that McNeil’s contention that he coined the term has long been disputed. CBGB treats his claim as gospel. It’s the film’s lede.
5. “The only bar in the city with Fresca on tap”
This might be correct, actually. There’s a fair chance CBGB was, as Alan Rickman’s Hilly (pictured above, looking helpless alongside his dog) proudly and frequently notes, “the only bar in the city with Fresca on tap.” But, honestly, who could possibly care? “Fresca” is brand-dropped throughout the movie, and maybe those close to him knew HIlly’s love of the grapefruit flavored, zero-calorie soda, and thought it deserved inclusion, but it’s truly weird that the film makes it such a point of emphasis.
6. The Ramones song The Ramones audition with in the movie isn’t actually by The Ramones
The Ramones justifiably get their fair share of screen time in CBGB. They fight. They talk funny. They get a record deal. After signing their deal their poster gets plastered all over the Bowery. They also audition for HIlly. One problem, though, the song they play–“I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up)”–is a Joey Ramone solo joint he wouldn’t record until years later.
7. Its comical depiction of “Punk”
There are a few quick-cut scenes that feature new publishing magnate John Holmstrom pacing the street quickly with one of his new Punk magazine writers talking about just what it is “punk” means, what exactly its aesthetic is, and what purpose it serves. What does it mean, they wonder, when Stiv Bators of The Dead Boys cuts himself onstage, or moons a child in the car next to their tour van on the freeway, or gets fellatio on stage? Chaos is inevitable, right? We may as well embrace it! We may as well give it a soundtrack. The world is burning and we’re happy to assist. PASS THE GAS CANS!
You get it. Like the infamous punk episodes of Quincy and CHiPs, anytime someone explains punk, acts punk or even says punk, chances are it’ll be one of the least punk things you’ve ever heard. It’ll make you cringe, and it happens nearly the entire movie. One scene in particular–an on camera interview with a bored and sneering Lou Reed–will make you shudder violently.
8. The Bowery is in New York City, not war-torn Beirut
Dead bodies, burned out cars, 15 junkies every cubic foot: there’s no doubt downtown New York of the early ’70s is much different than the gentrified, commodified, yuppie cupcake bake shop utopia it’s become. But the film overdoes the point of Bowery squalor to the point of exhaustion. I mean, the place had Fresca on tap, for Christ sake, how bad could it have been?
9. Ghost instruments on Patti Smith’s rendition of “Because the Night”
Look, we said some of these would be a bit nitpicky. So here’s that: Patti Smith wrote “Because the Night” with Bruce Springsteen in ’78. Hilly Kristal founded CBGB in ’73. There’s certainly no indication in the movie that five years have passed (the whole thing actually seems boiled down to a matter of months), but we’ll let the fact that she sings the song slide. One thing, though: If you listen not-so-closely, you’ll hear piano while she performs. Alas, there is no piano onstage with her.
10. Hilly’s dog’s bowels were legendary
Hilly’s dog poops quite often in the movie, a fact the film feels it must remind you of about every 20 minutes or so. As the movie ends and some of the “Where Are They Now” text fills in some of the blanks, HIlly’s dog even gets the last shout out, in an attempt (we guess?) at lighthearted whimsy. “His bowels were legendary.” OK? But was his poop really deserving of so much screen time? The fact that he crapped all over the bar and Hilly’s apartment may have been right, historically, but in terms of telling CBGB’s story, it comes across so very wrong.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 8, 2013