CBGB (2013) / Comedy-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language throughout, some sexual content, drug use, and a scene of violence
Running Time: 101 min.
Cast: Alan Rickman, Freddy Rodriguez, Donal Logue, Ashley Greene, Johnny Galecki, Richard de Klerk, Malin Akerman, Justin Bartha, Rupert Grint, Bradley Whitford, Ryan Hurst, Ahna O'Reilly, Stana Katic, Taylor Hawkins, Peter Vack, Joel David Moore, Mickey Sumner
Director: Randall Miller
Screenplay: Jody Savin, Randall Miller
Review published September 20, 2013
CBGB is titled after the Bowery-section, East Village Manhattan nightclub established by Hilly Kristal (played in the film by Alan Rickman, The Butler) in 1973, mostly known for being one of the first places to break in many American punk rock and new wave acts. It wasn't Kristal's intent to become the "Godfather of punk rock", as he thought that his first love, country music, would be what brought in the patrons, hence the name of 'CBGB', which stands for 'Country, Bluegrass, Blues'. Later on, Kristal would add the provocative sounding second title of 'OMFUG', which stands for 'Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers', as a way of denoting that the club's clientele had largely become underground rockers, who had very few venues willing to cater to 'their kind', and far removed from the likes of a bluegrass or country crowd.
Though CBGB's doors remained open through 2006, the film concentrates mainly on the club's humble beginnings in 1973 and throughout the remainder of the 1970s, where it would become an institution for many underground bands to perform in front of a small, packed house full of music devotees. As the story covers several years and spotlights a great number of famous musical acts, much of CBGB feels compressed in order to squeeze in as much as it can in a short amount of time, which does make the story seem glossy and superficial. Many of the musical acts spotlighted have no real significance to the club's actual story save to spotlight the sheer breadth of how many popular musicians got their start in that tiny space.
The lack of adequate time does become an issue as the focus of CBGB is all over the map. Had writer-director Randall Miller, and co-screenwriter Jody Savin, concentrated more on one area, there would have been plenty of opportunity to build a compelling story, even if it isn't all-encompassing. For instance, they could have made it strictly a Hilly Kristal biopic, and concentrated on his rise to prominence in music circles, his philosophy on showcasing music and entertainment, his family issues, his bankruptcies, and his battle with the lung cancer that eventually took him in 2007. Or, the film could have just made Kristal a supporting player, instead concentrating on the overall life span of the club itself and the ups and downs of its existence, and the day-to-day operations as it became, quite inadvertently, an iconic institution. Or, perhaps best of all, it could have solely concentrated on the impact it had on the punk rock scene, skipping over all of the trials and tribulations of its owner and his financial struggles, solely giving us the story of the rise and fall of punk rock through the windows of the famous nightclub mecca throughout the 1970s.
By giving us all three, CBGB gives us none of them enough to satisfy, breathlessly running from one to the other to the other, never quite lingering long enough in any of them for poignancy to set in. Miller edits the film using a visually appealing comic-book paneled style, as if the film were ripped right out of the illustrated pages of Punk magazine (the publication's origin itself exists as a prominent subplot of the film), which was one of the main publications that wrote at length on the CBGB scene at the time. It whooshes from point to point, only occasionally stopping to catch its breath as it name drops a plethora of bands portrayed by mostly no-name actors. However, on a positive note, this technique does bolster the amount of great punk and new wave songs on the film's soundtrack, which may be the most appealing aspect of CBGB to many viewers.
Then there are the acts that get a bigger share of the spotlight, particularly the Dead Boys, a punk band from Cleveland that would become known for their outlandish live performances, which included self-mutilation, mock attempts at suicide and sexual acts performed on the stage. Hilly would try to manage their act, though their brash style wasn't always just an act, as their self-destructive attitude made them a wild card to handle as a musical act. Television (the band) also is given a bit more time as the one of the first bands of the punk era to perform regularly at CBGB's. Blondie's Debbie Harry (Akerman, Rock of Ages) and Iggy Pop (Foo Fighters' drummer, Hawkins) recur quite often, possibly for their eye-candy appeal more so than their importance to the club's story. In most regards, however, these musicians are portrayed more as larger-than-life caricatures than as real-life characters.
One can almost see the checklist Miller may have had in hand in striving to make sure to cram in every prominent musical act, every major event, and every notable facet of the club itself (the disgusting bathrooms, pest control issues, and unhealthy kitchen conditions among them). While it's nice to see such bands as The Police and Talking Heads portrayed in the film, these appearances could have been relegated to an end-of-movie montage without stopping the story momentum every two minutes. It's also disappointing that the famous acts performing on stage are not really performing, as the studio version of the songs kicks out and the actors or actresses merely lip-sync off of their well-known album tracks. Even if they didn't quite sound like the original acts, having live, grungy performances would have gone a long way to the authentic CBGB feel than a cavalcade of all-too-polished make-believe, though I will concede that it may have compromised the nightclub's rule on only playing original material on the stage to have what is essentially nothing but covers.
Despite lots of verve and visual energy, CBGB doesn't garner enough laughs to succeed as a comedy, nor relatable moments to be an absorbing drama. Nostalgic punk rock aficionados may be more forgiving in what ends up being a high-budget fan film, though the glossy treatment, glaring anachronisms, and lack of actual punk rock pedigree will limit the street cred (not to mention much of the film is shot, not in the Bowery, but in Savannah, GA). While Rickman, who also starred in Miller's previous film, Bottle Shock, is fine in the role as the occasionally unlikeable Hilly, at 67 years old, he's a bit long in the tooth to be playing a man in his mid-40s, and his lack of connection with the music scene may result in a lack of connection with its intended audience as well. Had CBGB been filmed with the same vibe as the music it portrays -- underground, filthy, edgy, improvisational, rebellious, and in-your-face -- it would probably be an instant cult hit, instead of the shallow, sugar-coated and touristy overview we get here.
©2013 Vince Leo