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November 21st, 2014

CBGB *1/2

The year was 1976. The country celebrated its bicentennial. I was born. And rock music on top-40 radio was awful.

 

Peter Frampton, Chicago, Wings, Elton John, Aerosmith. These artists were simply not very interesting.

 

In fact, I’m not sure they should even be called artists. Artist implies that they were driven by a muse to create fine art. Listening to those bands, they sound more like they were driven by record company executives to make enough money to buy large piles of powdered drugs.

 

The music industry had become safe and bland. It needed a wake-up call. It came from CBGB.

 

Twice divorced/twice bankrupt New York weirdo Hilly Kristal (played by Alan Rickman) had a dream: he wanted to bring Country, Blue Grass, and Blues music (CBGB) to the rundown Manhattan neighborhood called the Bowery.

 

He totally failed. What he did, however, was set the stage for a music revolution. Television, an original little art-rock band, began performing at CBGB in 1974. The attention that Television got quickly turned CBGB from a hillbilly dive bar into the coolest alternative rock club in town.

 

There was no place for The Talking Heads or The Ramones on mainstream radio. But there was a place for them on the stage of CBGB. And having all of these exciting bands in one place inspired kids to form bands of their own. And the bands continued to inspire each other to be brave and uncompromising and strange.

 

Writer/director Randall Miller is genuinely passionate about the cultural impact of CBGB. However, he probably should have made a documentary film. CBGB is lousy drama.

 

Alan Rickman is stuck playing a character with no personality and no arc.

 

If the story was about how Hilly Kristal was a musical visionary who masterminded the American punk movement, that would be a good movie.

 

If the story was about how Hilly Kristal was a blundering idiot who had no idea that his bar was hosting some of the greatest young bands of the late 70s, that would be a good movie. He did – after all – have Blondie, Patti Smith, and The Police playing for him but he decided to invest all of his money in a mediocre Cleveland band called The Dead Boys. That’s a tragically hilarious true story, but the film doesn’t make much of it.

 

The Ramones were amazing. The Talking Heads were amazing. CBGB was amazing. “CBGB” stinks. If you want to learn more about the American punk rock movement, I recommend the book “Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk” instead.

 

 

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