Director: Randall Miller
Cast: Alan Rickman, Malin Åkerman, Johnny Galecki
CBGB, the last I heard, was somehow being transported to New Jersey where it is to be relaunched as a restaurant in Newark Airport, which is kind of like re-opening the Glasgow Apollo as a hairdressing salon in Airdrie. Well that idea isn’t that much dafter surely?
I did promise to review CBGB back in 2013 but after watching the film I found it difficult to muster up the necessary enthusiasm.
Alarm bells had began to ring when I caught Malin Åkerman promoting the movie on Craig Ferguson’s chat show where she told Craig that she was playing Blondie. Not Debbie Harry but Blondie.
Unfortunately at times CBGB resembles that show where Matthew Kennedy brought on members of the public to imitate their singing heroes. Tonight Matthew, I’m Going to be Iggy Pop/Cheetah Chrome/David Byrne etc etc. Except at least on Stars in Their Eyes the contestants did actually sing rather than lip-sync their impersonations.
Promoted with the tagline ‘50,000 Bands and One Disgusting Bathroom’, CBGB promised to be the American 24 Hour Party People but was just too mainstream and predictable – the exact opposite of acts like Television, The Ramones and Patti Smith that became synonymous with the venue.
CBGB bombed at the box office with a total U.S. theatrical gross of only $40,400 and critics were largely dismissive, Robert Abele of the Los Angeles Times for example branding it ‘merely a mess of caricatures.’
If you haven’t seen the film, it might be an idea to just watch the trailer which contains the only line that I laughed at (regarding Ramones’ song titles). Or, even better, watch any of the many documentaries that examine the club and its influence.
Summer of Sam (1999)
Director: Spike Lee
Cast: John Leguizamo, Adrien Brody, Mira Sorvino
CBGB was also featured as a location in Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam and it would have to be said that painstakingly detailed research into his subject matter do not feature as one of Lee’s qualities as a filmmaker. Seeing SOS gives the impression that for him punk was something that only really happened in London where Sid Vicious sang with that band The Sex Pistols.
Now I can’t claim to have been a CBGB regular in 1977 (or at any other time) but I have watched a fair amount of footage from the venue and the crowds really bore no similarity to what Lee presents here with his motley crew of extras who all look like those awful so called punks that hung around the King’s Road in the early ’80s, hoping that a tourist would slip them 50 pence so they could be photographed with them. And no Spike, you wouldn’t have seen tongue rings and septum piercings in the summer of 1977 either.
Despite the anachronisms, SOS is not the total flop that CBGB is. Lee was a breath of fresh air in the American independent cinema scene of the 1980s and since his early days he’s always been able to construct a memorable set piece scene.
SOS also tackles some explosive subject matter – a real life serial killer whose murders raise tensions across the city, including an Italian-American neighbourhood in the Bronx. All to the backdrop of the disco phenomenon and emergence of punk.
The cast is very good here too, especially John Leguizamo (Carlito’s Way & Kick-Ass 2) who plays Vinny, a disco dancing hairdresser who classes women into two categories, Madonna or Whore – his wife Dionna (Mira Sorvino) being the former while her pal Ruby (Jennifer Esposito) is the latter.
There’s also some great music, The Who’s Baba O’Riley, Chic’s Everybody Dance and Got to Give It Up by Marvin Gaye being just three examples, but Lee never combines these tracks with his imagery with the same imagination as, say, Lee’s bete noire Quentin Tarantino, which is no crime but I do have a slight problem with some of the songs being so nail on the head obvious, like when Dionna is packing her bags and walking out on Vinny, Lee feels the need to spell things out with Thelma Houston’s version of Don’t Leave Me This Way.
And of course, he couldn’t resist including Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer either, which is heard in a cafe in the background on the radio, the DJ obviously having been given an advance copy to play as the scene is set in the middle of summer and the track wasn’t released till the middle of September on the album 77, while as a single it wasn’t released in the States till December.
Okay, I’m being a little pedantic.
More worrying is the fact that while Spike Lee has always been quick to condemn any stereotyping of black characters in cinema, not for the first time he could be accused of racism himself for his portrayal of a New York Italian community. In SOS, if your surname ends with a vowel then in probability you’ll be a special kind of stupid, the guys usually women hating bullies with a side helping of homophobia and distrust of anyone different – because he’s a punk rock freak, some of these idiots somehow get it into their heads that Ritchie (Adrien Brody) might just be the Son of Sam.
SOS is a long film and just not compelling enough to justify its length of 142 minutes. Unlike American Hustle, where David O. Russell arguably out Scorsesed Martin Scorsese, Lee’s move into similar territory only makes you wonder what the great man would have conjured up utilising the same subject matter.
If you want a better serial killer film try Zodiac and if you want a better disco movie Saturday Night Fever is for you.
Trivia: John Turturro (The Big Lebowski and Do the Right Thing) supplies the voice of Harvey, the black dog who order Sam to kill.