The short list: While the filmmakers’ hearts were in the right place, CBGB plays out like a scratched CD, a greatest hits compilation that skips and stutters, offering up an incomplete monument to one of New York’s musical Meccas.
The long review: Whether or not punk is dead is a subject that is up for debate, but director Randall Miller’s CBGB is not the defibrillator that it needs to register a cinematic pulse. A superficial, high level feature that follows the trials and travails of Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman), the surly, laconic founder of New York City’s legendary punk rock club CBGB, the film is enjoyable up to a point, but fails to offer any real insight or add to the conversation surrounding the club and its effect on the American musical landscape. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the film neglects to comment on the circumstances surrounding CBGB’s closure in 2006, the result of a rent dispute, which is particularly poignant in light of the fact that the film repeatedly references Kristal’s inability to manage his finances.
The film is loosely framed by conversations between Punk magazine founder John Holmstrom, Please Kill Me writer Legs McNeil, and writer/director Mary Harron, but it plays out like a half-remembered hangover, a pastiche of what are perceived as the club’s defining moments: its founding, Terry Ork introducing Hilly to Television, its rise to punk rock prominence, Hilly’s ill-fated decision to manage the Dead Boys. The result is chaotic and disjointed, lacking any real semblance of a narrative, playing out more like an anthology or an extended recap.
One of the most aggravating choices by Miller is his insistence on using faux comic book-like word bubbles, grawlixes, and comic panels to transition between scenes. Its intended effect is to give the film a ‘zine-like feel and perhaps tell us to not take this so seriously as a piece of rock n’ roll history, but for my money, it cheapened the whole production, like annoying pop-up ads that I couldn’t close.
Rickman’s performance as Kristal is capable, although he comes off a bit like Severus Snape on quaaludes, and does a decent job at anchoring the film. The rest of the casting, with the exceptions of folks like Johnny Galecki’s Terry Ork, Donal Logue’s Merv Ferguson, and the actors portraying Television and Talking Heads, leaves much to be desired, which isn’t as much of an indictment of their abilities as it is the fact that they’re playing them to begin with. Recreating icons like these is a Herculean task for any casting director, but it did feel a bit like cosplay karaoke with actors doing their best to lip sync through punk rock standards. And for a film that hones in on a musical genre all about being true to oneself and authenticity, CBGB seems like a paltry offering.
CBGB is in theaters now. Read my interviews with stars Johnny Galecki and Joel David Moore, then let us know what you think in the comments below! Or, be a sport, and reach out to me directly on Twitter!