Punk Rock Puppet Show
Here is a slightly tweaked version of something I wrote about the 2013 movie CBGB a while ago. I was mostly just trying to think through the film after I saw it. I’ve modified it slightly to make it coherent enough to post on my blog.
Directed by Randall Miller, the movie tells the story of New York punk through the eyes of Hilly Kristal, the founder of the famed punk club CBGB. Like Vinyl (which wasn’t yet out when I first wrote this), the movie is a curious piece of rock music historical fiction.
It also isn’t very good. Reviewers have largely demolished the movie. A number of critics remarked on the fact that it took liberties with the facts. It definitely does. A few details are flubbed or simply made up, the timeline is hazy, and one too many scenes are invented in order to get the right people together at just the right time.
But actually, the movie includes a lot of historical information. I think a few critics zeroing in on this or that nitpicky thing and kind of missed the point. There were mistakes, but Miller and co-writer Jody Savin clearly did some homework. It’s not documentary-level detail, but you can tell they’ve at the very least carefully read some of the big historical accounts of punk. The movie gives a slightly more prominent role to Hilly Kristal then is commonplace, transforming him into punk rock’s chief visionary. But otherwise, it basically rehearses a series of fairly canonic anecdotes about punk.
At its best, the movie actually gets seriously detailed. The most striking moment is when Hilly Kristal’s daughter, Lisa, reads aloud from an actual review claiming that the band Television had “absolutely no musical or socially redeeming characteristics and they know it.” Of course, purists will be pleased to hear that they mucked this detail up, too. Lisa reads from a copy of the Village Voice, but the article she quoted was actually printed in SoHo Weekly News (Josh Feigenbaum, “R&R&B&CW,” April 25, 1974, p. 18).
In the end, scrutinizing this or that detail is pretty uninteresting (even if I’m showing off that I can do it :p ). What is telling isn’t that they made mistakes, but what that as a concern reveals about the project. The mere fact that trivia is at stake at all is important. CBGB is like a retelling of punk history by me around age fourteen, a little too earnest and too excited. It’s like someone read the Wikipedia, got lost in the details, and started telling a story that feels like it’s never going to end. What matters at the end of the day is the mere repetition of facts.
Of course, they are dressed up in order to make the story a little more exciting. The movie is full of dramatizations of many of punk’s most famous moments. But even that fails. Some reviewers pointed out that the experience of watching actors lip sync to beloved punk records feels pretty empty. Punk history definitely does feel a bit like it’s a plot for a puppet show. A.O. Scott of the New York Times put it nicely when he wrote, “’CBGB’ is less a piece of cultural history, music criticism or even fannish hagiography than a theme-park attraction, Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree with the likes of Tom Verlaine, Patti Smith, Joey Ramone and Deborah Harry in lieu of bears.”
What separates these animatronics from Disney’s is the fact that here, it is the real-world history that constitutes the selling point (and not the joy of dancing bears, I guess). This is what is odd about the movie. It blankly affirms punk without any sense of why (or if) it should be valued. The most telling moment is the film’s… finale, of sorts… where, in a moment of frustration at his financial circumstances, Hilly goes on a journey to small town New Jersey. When a local recognizes him, Hilly realizes his own importance and gains folksy wisdom in the process. Finally, he discovers something that we all already know before the movie: he is part of a beloved moment in music, despite the ups and downs. Ultimately, it’s not even like the movie comes down to Hilly’s personal growth or financial gain or something like that. Really, the only goal is the mere affirmation of punk’s existence (and did anyone doubted that it… happened?).
Though clumsy, CBGB is telling in many ways. It arrived just before our current punk vogue. This year in particular, I’ve seen a renewed interest in 1970s New York. I think this is at least in part because punk’s semi-official Ruby Anniversary is here or approaching, depending on whether 1976’s The Ramones or 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks is your chosen first punk record. People are rushing out to release retrospectives, countdowns, and even… pants? Yep, you read that right. Levi’s just announced that they’ve resumed making the 505c slim fit jean, which most famously clothes the rail thin legs on the cover of The Ramones):
While I’m glad to see a topic I’m personally and professionally invested in getting press, I still think we need a good reason for talking about it. In the instances just mentioned above, it’s not clear why we should be interested in punk again. Many of the sources talking about punk simply rehearse the same old history, indexing something without really evaluating it. It often feels like we are puppeting punk history, or dressing up in Dee Dee drag.
CBGB is at least pretty central to that story, at least when read against the historical backdrop. It is the great puppet-show of the new punk revival. But it still might be more fun to read the Wikipedia page.