Monday, November 4, 2013


Four actors approximate The Ramones: CBGB

Nearly every character in Randall Miller's CBGB is worthy of a film of his or her own. The club itself, a New York Bowery dive where so many of the top "punk" acts of the 1970s played their first gigs, is the focus, while Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman), the club's deadpan owner, is given the lion's share of the attention. Still, The Ramones deserve their own biopic, as do Patti Smith, and Blondie, and Talking Heads. For that matter, the transsexual rocker Jayne County might be a fit subject, too. Instead, all of these colorful characters are jammed into a single movie. The result manages to be both amusing and unsatisfying.

Rickman is fine as Hilly, a lumbering, slow moving bear of a man who isn't above hiring a local gang of bikers to take care of pesky debt collectors. The film doesn't have a particular plot - it's mostly one quick episode after another - but in the last act we see a half-hearted attempt at plot development, with Hilly trying to manage The Dead Boys, a moronic band from Cleveland that he hopes will become as popular as The Ramones. Typically, their tour bus turns crashes, and one of the band members is nearly killed in a street fight, which could serve as suitable metaphors for Hilly's ruined dreams, or the death of punk rock, or something along those lines. It's easy to sympathize with Hilly, who simply wanted to cash in on the punk music craze that he'd helped create.

But when he tries to hock the club as well as some family heirlooms to fund the rest of the band's tour, it's clear that he's not quite the visionary he's purported to be. He'd lucked into a good thing, and appreciated the originality of the bands he booked, but in choosing to back The Dead Boys, who were so stupid they didn't even understand that decorating their gear with Nazi emblems might insult their Jewish manager, he nearly capsized his career.

Rickman is particularly good when he goes back to New Jersey to get away from the hassles of the club. In a scene that is surprisingly moving, he sits alone in a barn plucking a guitar, singing a little song to himself. He's very convincing as a man who has created something that he didn't necessarily want to create, and watches wearily as it takes on a life of its own. Hell, he'd wanted to create a club for country music. But just as he's about to quit, the locals rally around Hilly and raise money to save the club. It's as if we've been watching It's A Wonderful Life, and Hilly is Jimmy Stewart. Again, amusing but unsatisfying.

As strong as Rickman is as Kristal, the same can't be said for the depiction of the various bands that made CBGB famous. The problem is that today's young actors are simply too healthy looking to play the decrepit heroes of early punk. Their complexions are too clear, their teeth too white, and they lack the feral quality of those early punks. The most glaring example is the girl playing Deborah Harry. Harry was a truly strange beauty, a lifesize vampire Barbie, while the girl in the movie looks like a generic California girl. Finally, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop are portrayed by actors who seem like characters from Glee doing a tribute to punk.

Some reviewers have complained that the bands in the film are merely miming to the original recordings. This didn't bother me too much. I was more annoyed that the song choices were often wildly off target. For instance, Patti Smith is shown singing 'Because the Night,' at a time when The Ramones had yet to sign their first recording contract. There's a disparity there of a few years.

Still, the rats are well represented, the toilets are disgusting, Hilly's dog shits all over the club, and we see Tom Verlaine nearly electrocuted onstage. All of that seems accurate and proper. But if this movie is supposed to convince a younger generation about the importance of CBGB, I'm not sure casting a bunch of cheerleaders as Deborah Harry and Patti Smith was the way to go.

* * *

Michael Polish's Big Sur is a surprisingly good adaptation of Jack Kerouac's novel of the same name. The story takes place when the old language spinner seemed to be unraveling. Drained and distracted by the success of On The Road, Kerouac appears to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and is showing the effects of his burgeoning alcoholism. 

Trying to regain some equilibrium, Kerouac (Jean Marc Barr) hides out at a Big Sur cabin belonging to San Francisco bookstore owner and poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Escape is not so easy, though. Within days he's back in San Francisco, drinking himself into a stupor.

He ends up back with his old traveling companion Neal Cassady (Josh Lucas), who is recently out of San Quentin, unemployed, and looking for trouble. Cassady is married but seeing Billie (Kate Bosworth) on the side. Inexplicably, Cassady "gives" Billie to Kerouac. Perhaps, Kerouac wonders, they will all someday be linked in a happy, four-way marriage. Such a plan isn't likely, though. Poor Billie falls for Kerouac, but he's too paranoid and self-absorbed to return her love. The story ends, as many of Kerouac's do, with a whimper; he pulls away from Billie, and vows to return home, where he hopes to find some peace in the company of his mother. In real life, Kerouac would do exactly that, and die at age 47.

The Beat Generation has a bad track record on film. But Polish comes closer than anyone ever has to doing it right, capturing Kerouac's highblown novel and wrangling it down into a movie. He does it with some beautiful cinematography to capture the lush mystery of Big Sur (mile high trees, crashing waves, a lone donkey wandering the beach) a steady voice over provided by Barr (using words I assume are taken from the novel), and a handful of strong performances.

Barr has the well-scrubbed but slightly ragged look of someone coming out of AA (or going into AA), and is constantly falling down, or sleeping on the floor. He has the dazed look of someone who was once happy but can't remember why. When he smiles, he seems to be smiling because he's heard that's what people do when they feel good. I suppose this is a reasonable way to play Kerouac, who in the few film clips I've seen looks sort of sad, and uncomfortable with being stared at. Mind you, this wasn't from shyness or insecurity, although he may well have been shy and insecure; it was more likely because the eyes of the public can pin a man down and make him feel trapped. It's difficult to play a writer, so Barr, instead, simply plays Kerouac as a nervous wreck. He gets away with it. He pulls it off.

The only footage I've ever seen of Neal Cassidy was in a documentary about Ken Kesey's band of stoned merry men who took a bus tour across the country. Cassady, a few years beyond the time depicted in Big Sur, drove the bus. He appeared to me like a big doofus, chattering nonsensically to himself; whatever magic Kerouac saw in him was long gone by the time he joined Kesey. But in Big Sur, Lucas opts to play Cassidy as Kerouac saw him, as a man who eats life from the ground up, and revels in his own jolly strength. The film finds its perfect pitch when various characters take a turn at chopping wood, and Kerouac comments in the voice over that a man's character can be gauged by the way he swings an ax. When it's Cassady's turn, he swings like Paul Bunyan; Kerouac calls him a "Greek God," and marvels at how Cassady's swings nearly lift him from the ground. It's a shame that Cassady leaves the film as soon as he passes Billie off to Jack.

There are other good performances: Anthony Edwards is convincing as Ferlinghetti; Balthazar Getti makes a suitably wormy Michael McClure; and Patrick Fischler has a couple of scene stealing turns as Lew Welch, Kerouac's pal and sometime chauffeur. Whether he's babbling about watching The Wizard of Oz and wanting to make love to munchkins, or offering a bizarre prayer before dinner, Fischler shows the kind of zany energy that movies about the Beat Generation have always lacked.

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