CBGB was a New York institution, a landmark that should have been protected by the city instead of forced out by crappy landlords in 2006. While it wasn't necessarily musically relevant by then, it was a helluva lot more culturally relevant than the John Varvatos store that's there now. But what about the upcoming CBGB biopic?
I hadn't been to CBGB in years when it closed, but as someone who's been haunting the neighborhood since 1995 or so, I have a lot of feelings about the upcoming film about the club, its late owner Hilly Kristal, and the years that spawned some of its most famous performers. Not all of them are good.
Simply titled "CBGB," this movie has promise behind the scenes. Director Randall Miller co-wrote the film with Jody Savin, and their 2008 film "Bottle Shock" was fairly well received, especially given it was self-distributed. Savin seems to have firsthand experience of the club, as well. She told Savannah Now, "It was a [expletive] hole of a bar, attracting the flotsam of humanity… But Hilly was a human being, he accepted all of them." Kristal's daughter Lisa Kristal Burgman is also one of the producers, and since she's also the controller of his estate, writers Miller and Savin will probably have a great insight into the time, as well as access to the people portrayed in the film.
On the other hand, building an indoor set in Savannah, GA, that uses the actual bar and toilets from the club will definitely not curry favor with people who actually used those toilets back in the day. Perhaps it's not that important where the indoor set will be built -- obviously, financial concerns play a big part in this -- but it undercuts the attempts at authenticity that the movie seems to be reaching for. At least they could have shot it in Brooklyn or Queens.
And then there's this: "There's also a lowered area where producers will shoot false exteriors of the Bowery, with virtual New York looking north across Louisville Road, west of downtown Savannah." Really? They couldn't have slapped a fake awning and storefront over the Varvatos store for a day or two? It's not like anyone actually shops there.
It will be interesting to see how Savin and Miller create a narrative about these different bands and personalities over a two-year period. The major players in the music scene -- or the ones that would become major players, anyway -- seem to be there for the most part, although there are some glaring omissions like the New York Dolls and the Heartbreakers.
The musicians in "CBGB" seem to be dominated by dudes, which was pretty typical of the punk scene. Unfortunately, The Runaways and The Pretenders didn't get their respective big breaks until a smidge later in this particular timeline. ("The Runaways" was actually a good movie, all you K.Stew haters. She peed on a guitar! Now that is punk rock.)
Kerry Bishé from "Red State" will play director/journalist Mary Harron, but like the role of Legs McNeil, it seems unlikely that will be a big part. "Castle" star Stana Katic is taking on the role of Genya Ravan, who was in Goldie & the Gingerbreads and later became a music producer. The two main ladies are Patti Smith and Debbie Harry -- icons, for sure, and plum parts in the movie.
Mickey Sumner is playing Patti Smith, and while it might be hard to pin down the awesome poet punk's androgyny, Sumner has a certain edge that makes me think she could rock it. Even if the punk she's playing probably wouldn't have the time of day for Sumner's dad Sting.
Malin Akerman could definitely pull off Debbie Harry's look circa 1974, but can she channel Harry's punk smolder? The glam goddess has given Akerman her blessing, though, telling the New York Post, "I haven't met her yet, but I think she is fabulous… I hope she has a lot of fun doing it. I hope she has more fun than I had." Despite my misgivings, I defer to Ms. Harry, naturally.
Ashley Greene will be playing Lisa Kristal, so perhaps Kristal vetted the "Twilight" actress herself. On the other hand, Greene hasn't done much to prove she can do more than be creepily clairvoyant with Jasper Hale in Forks, WA.
The guys seem like an even more mixed bag. I'm all for Alan Rickman as Hilly Kristal -- Savin and Miller wrote the part for him, even. Taylor Hawkins could pull off a good Iggy Pop; although Hawkins is older than Iggy was at the time, the punk icon has got a rather craggy look to him that Hawkins could reasonably approximate. Both Pop and Hawkins also have a shared background when it comes to recovering from hard drugs.
Rupert Grint is locked in to play Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys and later Rocket From the Tomb, and although both are/were gingers, that seems like all they have in common. This is one of many upcoming chances for Grint to get away from the "Harry Potter" legacy, but I'm not sure his best shot is playing a punk who estimated he'd overdosed "like, three or four times, been pronounced dead—and come back." On the other hand, Savin and Randall have had him in mind since the beginning.
Joel David Moore could probably pull off the nebbishy-looking Joey Ramone, especially hiding behind Ramone's big glasses and frizzy hair, but it's hard to picture soap opera actor Evan Alex Cole as the pouty-lipped punk Richard Hell.
And last but not least we have Justin Bartha, the groom-to-be from "The Hangover" getting "Young, Loud and Snotty" as Stiv Bators. Can you picture Bartha and Grint performing this? (Bators later went on to perform with Lords of the New Church, and among many fine original songs, they also performed this fantastic cover of "Like a Virgin." Truth.)
Filming is supposed to start at the end of June, and while there's no release date yet, there will be more CBGB news coming at us soon. There's a big CBGB music and film festival in July with live performances in venues across the city that will include performers from the annals of CBGB history, like David Johansen of the New York Dolls, Agnostic Front, Fishbone. The film portion of the festival will be concentrated on rock 'n' roll-related films, with an eye towards CBGB history like "End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones," "The Dead Boys: Live at CBGB 1977," "New York Doll," "Patti Smith: Dream of Life." There will even be panels for business and industry folks.
There's also rumor of a new CBGB springing to life, though when that might actually happen is anyone's guess. Luckily, they still have those graffiti-covered toilets on hand. And in the meantime, "CBGB" the movie.