Ages ago, when I was a Girl Scout, I used to love nature walks in the woods. Pick up a big rock and all the critters living underneath it would scurry around in the sudden sunlight. Some of the bugs and worms were gross, of course, but even so, I tried to respect their home and leave it intact so they could all return as soon as I was gone.
I am still fascinated by hidden worlds, but now I usually find them at the movies. Some very strange life forms, hiding under a Rock called "Punk," populate the world of Randall Miller's new film CBGB. And chief among them is a Jewish guy named Hillel Kristal who grew up on a chicken farm in New Jersey.
Like all BioPics, CBGB blends fact and fiction to tell a complex story within the narrative constraints and standard runtime of a feature film. BioPics are never "true," but the good ones always feel "truthy." I have no idea how much of CBGB is literally true, but it definitely feels truthy to me. I know men like Hillel Kristal, and I'll bet you do too.
When we first meet him, "Hilly" (played by versatile English actor Alan Rickman) is in a bad way. He's bankrupt, divorced, and living with his dog Jonathan on Manhattan's Lower East Side. It's the early 70s, when the Bowery was Manhattan's "Skid Row" ("shabby urban area with cheap taverns, dive bars, and dilapidated hotels frequented by lowlifes, alcoholics, and itinerants"). Who could imagine way back when that one day there would be a huge Whole Foods store on the Bowery?
Hilly lives there not because he has to but because the Bowery is his "comfort zone." Walking the streets day in, day out, Hilly and Jonathan become neighborhood regulars. No one bothers them, and no one expects anything from them. Hilly knows he can't get much lower; he can only go up.
Eventually Hilly finds what he's been looking for: a beat-up bar with the right interior dimensions. He goes to his mother for a "loan," and like most Jewish mothers, she agrees to fund yet another crazy venture. Hilly names his club CBGB (for "country, bluegrass, blues") and gets to work building his brand. Is all of this totally true? Probably not, but it sure is truthy. Hilly managed CBGB from 1973 until 2006, and that is a fact.
Early on, an aggressive manager brings his band into CBGB to audition. They don't play country, bluegrass, or blues, and they're not very good, but Hilly decides to give them a chance: "Maybe if they play, they'll get better." This was Hilly's "method" and it worked. If he heard "something," he said yes, and in the fullness of time, the CBGB audience exploded. As David Byrne said the night Talking Heads was inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame: "The bands came out because there was someplace to play."
The CBGB screenplay (co-written by Miller and screenwriter Jody Savin) braids together three narrative strands:
Life at CBGB
This strand depicts Hilly's relationships with his family and friends including his mother "Berta" (Estelle Harris) and his daughter "Lisa" (Ashley Greene), as well as his partner "Merv" (Donal Logue), his soundman "Taxi" (Richard de Klerk), and the hapless drug addict "Idaho" (Freddy Rodriguez).
Journalists who covered CBGB
This strand depicts the parallel activities of Punk magazine founder "John Holmstrom" (John Zuckerman) and his friends "Legs McNeil" (Peter Vack) and "Mary Harron" (Ahna O'Reilly) as they put a label on CBGB's goings-on and create their iconic imagery. Miller and Savin pay homage to Holmstrom by punctuating their film with cartoons that evoke his columns and album covers.
Bands who played at CBGB
This strand provides a mini-Who's Who of artists--many now quite famous--who got their start at CBGB. These performance scenes are all snippets, with actors playing the musicians actually heard on the soundtrack. Stand-ins include the following: Justin Bartha (playing Stiv Bators of The Dead Boys), Jared Carter (playing David Byrne of Talking Heads), Malin Akerman (playing Deborah Harry of Blondie), Taylor Hawkins (playing Iggy Pop), Joel David Moore (playing Joey Ramone), Kyle Gallner (playing Lou Reed), Mickey Sumner (playing Patti Smith), and Keene McRae (playing Sting when he was a member of The Police). This list alone gives those new to Punk a sense of CBGB's importance in Rock history.
But the Prospero at the eye of this cinematic Tempest is always Hilly Kristal, and although it is never mentioned in the film, there is something implicit that helps explains Hilly's approach to life. Perhaps he was never aware of it consciously, but we know from the novels of Philip Roth, the early films of Woody Allen and Barry Levinson, and many other contemporary sources that Jewish-American boys coming of age in the shadow of the Holocaust absorbed its horror as an inescapable fact of life.
When he embraces Jonathan (a dog no one else could love) and when he protects Idaho (a man others have already thrown on the garbage heap), we can feel Hilly's defiance. Even if he never used these words himself, we hear Hilly's interior scream: "Who are you to decide who will live and who will die?" And watching Hilly sleep on a mattress in a Bowery flophouse? We know--or should know--that it is Heaven itself compared to Auschwitz.
As the credits roll at the end of CBGB, Miller and Savin include actual footage from the night Talking Heads was inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame. The man Tina Weymouth and David Byrne both thank, the man who stands there-accepting the fervent applause of the audience without saying a single word-that man, Hilly Kristal, was a mensch. And watching them made this grown girl cry.
CBGC will be playing in special screenings next week all around Metro Chicago. For more information, follow link this & click on ILLINOIS: http://dandeentertainment.com/cbgb/cbgb-tickets
Photo Credits: Beau Giannakopoulos/XLrator Media