Pete Townshend, guitar god of The Who, says he learned to play guitar and started a band for two reasons:
A: His nose. B. To meet girls.
About his nose he said, “It was huge. It was the reason I played guitar.” He also noted that bands (even band-members with large noses) “always got the best girls.”
“It is definitely one of the things that inspires lads to play music,” agrees Sing Street star Ferdia Walsh-Peelo.
Ask most male musicians why they joined a band and 99 out of 100 will tell you it was for one very simple reason, to meet women. Art, money and fame are often far distant second place to the lure of the opposite sex. Such is the case with Conor (Walsh-Peelo) a fifteen-year-old school by with a crush on Raphina (Lucy Boynton) in Sing Street, the new musical romance from Once director John Carney that plays like a spiritual cousin to The Commitments.
“I think that is the thing that gets Conor started and gets people started pop music,” he says. “Then you form the band and you find refuge in the music. It becomes more than just getting the girl. It’s actually a way of coping when things are crap.
“I didn’t have a great time in school and I went through all these similar kind of phases [as Conor]. I remember seeing [the John Lennon biopic] Nowhere Boy and me and this other guy at school bought leather jackets, gelled our hair back and went into school. Bringing combs with us and doing our hair like in Grease. Looking like complete twats running around town just doing mad stuff. It’s all part of the process. Finding yourself and finding your voice.”
Born and reared just thirty minutes outside Dublin in in County Wicklow, in the film the young actor is the perfect picture of an 80s rock star, despite knowing next to nothing about the decade or the music when he signed on to play Conor.
“It was a huge learning curve,” he says. “I hadn’t reached that point where I was diving into 80s music. I suppose I was up to the late Sixties. When I went into Sing Street I was playing bands and we were still in that place. I was listening to loads of country, music from Tennessee, skiffle music, bluegrass. I had been experimenting with loads of different kinds of music and I got into the 80s stuff when we shot the movie.
“It took me a while but then I got into it after watching a million ridiculous 80s videos. I just got it,” he says. “They just weren’t taking themselves seriously at all. It was just that kind of era. It was all just mad, wasn’t it? There was loads of horrendous stuff around at that time but there were a few gems. Hall and Oates are absolute gems of the pop stuff.”
The musician-turned-actor also singles out The Cure and The Talking Heads as great stuff,” but says his heart lies in folk music.
“Folk music is always where it’s been at for me. I played skiffle music with bands for the craic (fun) of it but when I came back, in my room I’d be listening to Joni Mitchell.”
Hilly Kristal became known as the Grand Curator of Punk. As the owner of CBGB, the American birthplace of punk rock, he auditioned hundreds of bands and gave groups like The Ramones, Blondie and The Talking Heads their first big breaks. When he liked a band he’d say his now legendary catchphrase, “There’s something there…”
After watching “CBGB,” the Alan Rickman movie based on his life and club, I was reminded of Gertrude Stein’s famous catchphrase, “There is no there there.”
When we first met Hilly (Rickman) he’s a divorced father with two failed clubs to his credit. When he stumbles across a dive bar on New York City’s Bowery he sees an opportunity. Taking over the lease, he befriends the neighborhood’s junkies, bikers and musicians, even if his original idea of presenting country, blue grass and blues (hence the acronym CBGB) gets passed over in favor of underground music by bands like Television and The Ramones.
The club is a hit, but Kristal is a terrible businessman who never pays his rent or liquor distributors. That job falls to his daughter Lisa (“Twilight’s” Ashley Greene) who pays the bills as an endless parade of musicians with names like Iggy Pop (Taylor Hawkins), Joey Ramone (Joel David Moore), Cheetah Chrome (Rupert Grint) and Debbie Harry (Malin Akerman) create a new youth movement on the club’s rickety stage.
Punk rock was a glorious racket, a stripped-down music designed put a bullet in the head of the Flower Power generation. Loud, fast and snotty, the music was ripe with energy and rebellion.
In other words it was everything that “CBGB” is not.
Director Randall Miller gets period details mostly right—the film’s set features artifacts from the punk rock shrine, including the bar, the pay phone, the poster filled walls and the infamously funky toilets—but entirely misses the spirit of the times and the music.
A movie about punk rock should crackle with energy. Despite a rockin’ soundtrack, “CBGB” feels inert. The story focuses on Kristal but Rickman barely registers. The actor reduces the flamboyant character to a morose monotone; a man at the center of a hurricane but who doesn’t feel the breeze.
The impersonations of the musicians are mostly quite good. The surprising stand-out is Rupert Grint as Dead Boys bassist Cheetah Chrome. It’s as un-Harry Potter a performance as you could imagine and he enthusiastically embraces Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Potter habit of showing his bum as often as possible.
Others acquit themselves in suitable snotty fashion, but the recreations mostly made me wish “CBGB” was a documentary and not a feature film. It has interesting tidbits about the time. For instance when Hilly first meets the Ramones he asks if they have any original songs. They say they only have five tunes, four of which have “I Don’t Wanna” in the title while the fifth is called “I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.” It’s a funny story, whether true or not, it hints at the kind of details that may have fleshed out a film that spends far too much time focused on the club and not on the music.
Not that there is a shortage of music, but it feels more “Rock of Ages” than “Raw Power.”
“CBGB” takes an exciting story of an important time and shaves all the rough edges away, leaving behind smoothed over vision of a rough-and-ready time.