The problem with making movies set in the recent past, especially when they concern infamous landmarks such as CBGBs, is that there are people who went there and bands that played there still walking the asphalt.
If you didn’t actually go there to see a band (and I didn’t, despite working in New York when it was still open), you’ve probably read a hundred reviews of gigs being played there, or heard live albums recorded there, or seen Roberta Bayley or Bob Gruen’s photos of bands gigging there.
So Randall Miller’s 2013 movie (currently available on Netflix) had it’s work cut out ahead of time, and it seems nobody involved, least of all Miller, felt like making much of a job of it.
Metacritic gave it 30 out of a hundred based on 17 reviews, while Rotten Tomatoes gave it 3.4/10. The LA Times called it “a mess of caricatures” while The Village Voice (who should know) said the film’s “biggest problem is that it’s taken such electrifying source material and done absolutely zilch with it.”
But don’t let that put you off! It’s hilarious!
There are one or two excellent turns, the surprise package being Hogwarts’ own Rupert Grint as Cheetah Chrome, while Stana Katic stands out as Genya Ravan, and someone called Caleb McCotter has a crack at being Jayne County.
Much of the casting however, verges on the farcical, particularly Malin Ackerman’s Debbie Harry. One thing you can say about the lead Blondie is that she had charisma in spades. Not so Ackerman, I’m afraid. Too tall, too busty, too plain, too miserable.
The four wack jobs playing The Ramones (see above) are just five blokes in leather and wigs, but completely hilarious. I’m imagining an excellent sitcom starring these four chancers permanently at war with the film’s Dead Boys – also completely laughable and loveable. A weekly thirty minute laugh-a-thon featuring the fake Ramones and Dead Boys might even be an idea I’ll steal myself.
And don’t even get me started on the Iggy, Lou and Patti characters. They could have been played by Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howard and Fenella Fielding for all the difference it made. The film would have been better for it.
By the way, my CBGB comedy theory is leant some weight by the presence of real gag-show royalty, in the form of Mrs Costanza herself, Estelle Harris (as Hilly Kristal’s mom, Bertha), and a decent part by ex-Rosanne alumnus and Big Bang Theorist Johnny Galecki (as Terry Ork).
So how about the recently departed Alan Rickman as Hilly Kristal (above)? I’ve never been much of a fan of Rickman. I never forgave him for Truly Madly Deeply, but it seems he was a truly decent bloke. Labour supporter, state school educated, raised by a single parent.
When all else is collapsing around him he brings this rootedness to the role of Kristal. Joey Ramone only knows how Miller got him to take the part, as a cursory glance at the script would surely have had the Shakespearean rolling around on the casting room with stomach cramps. But there you go.
Hilly Kristal was said to be good to his musicians, appreciating that they needed good sound, promotion and payment. Punk Magazine’s obituary was kind to Kristal and honoured his legacy, and I think the same could be said of Rickman’s portrayal of the club owner.
The greatest tribute to Rickman is that in a litter tray of a movie, his performance lifts it out of the ordinary. It’s still a comedy, but it has a heartfelt and memorable dramatic execution at the heart of it.