The ‘CBGB’ movie: Punk’s not dead — or wait, maybe it is

A Hollywood treatment of the founding days of American punk rock was always going to be fraught with peril. About the only director I can think of who I’d like to see even attempt such a movie is Gus van Sant, someone capable of, among other things, thinking outside the trap of a tidy linear arc.

This movie is really very edgy and subversive.

I can’t imagine what the backers of CBGB saw in Randall Miller’s previous work that convinced them he was the man for the job: PR materials for the film play up his previous directing credit, the self-distributed Bottle Shock (2008) while keeping strangely silent about feel-good pic Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School (2006). And not a word about the 1995 family comedy Houseguest nor the Kid n’ Play vehicle — surely you remember Kid n’ Play — Class Act (’92), nor the episodes of WB sitcoms Popular and Jack & Jill on Miller’s resume. It’s an oeuvre that just screams he’d be a natural to tackle the early days of punk and New Wave in 1970s New York City, right?

Still, CBGB didn’t have to be this bad. The movie is so aggressively mediocre as to suggest that working in network TV stamped Miller’s work for life. Playing like a sitcom tricked out with nudity and bad language, CBGB is almost irritatingly cutesy in tone, even as it tries to portray the urban squalor of 1970s Manhattan.

Alan Rickman as uplifting gormandizer Hilly Kristal. © Copyright XLrator Media.

The script by Miller and Jody Savin follows 40-ish Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman), a failed club owner, as he wanders into a dive bar at 315 Bowery and is seized with the inspiration to turn the place into a haven for country, bluegrass and blues.

The screenplay depicts Kristal as a long-suffering, well-meaning fellow who is oblivious or incompetent about nearly aspect of running a club; there’s barely any suggestion that he had been kicking around the Greenwich Village folk scene for 10 years. Alan Rickman imbues Kristal with a convincing hangdog air, but the character stays one-dimensional, and Rickman’s accent sometimes suggests Professor Snape on vacation.

The newly rechristened CBGB remains a dive, perpetually on the brink of being snuffed out. One day circa 1974 a couple of angular young musicians talk their way into auditioning for Hilly, and voila, the band Television inaugurates the club as a testing ground for unproven, “underground” rock acts.

Punk rock icons in the temple of doom? Malin Akerman as Debbie Harry, Justin Hawkins as Iggy Pop. © Copyright XLrator Media.

So begins the variety-show nature of the movie: each new act takes the stage — Talking Heads, Patti Smith, Blondie, the Ramones — and performs a snippet of their best-known number to remind, or clue in the audience who these people are and why there’s a movie about CBGB in 2013.

For the most part, once we’re introduced to each new act, that group or singer disappears. Thus the movie completely misses one of the things that’s most fascinating about CBGB in retrospect, what an improbably fertile scene and informal hangout it was for musicians in those early years — a fantastic incubator of talent. There was no VIP section, no special treatment for anybody. If you hung out at the bar, Patti Smith might have walked by and tipped you off to stick around for Television.

There’s little attempt to delineate any of these legends-in-the-making as individual characters, save for a dubious moment where Blondie’s Debbie Harry (Malin Akerman) opines about sex to an interviewer. (Akerman’s Harry is an immaculately styled mod doll, yet still doesn’t quite evoke former Jersey girl Harry’s throwback glamour or blasé New York cool.) This is rock history as karaoke night. For the most part the actors playing the performers are reasonably convincing simulacra, though Television bassist Richard Hell might want to sue somebody about the buffoon impersonating him here, a guy who is more Dick Heck than Richard Hell.

The filmmakers get into trouble by using the studio versions of each band’s most famous number: the songs are laughably slick for this humble setting, and a couple times you can hear a keyboard part even when there’s no keyboard player on stage. A more credible, ambitious production would have at least licensed live recordings (or, God forbid, the original demos) for the actors to lip-sync to. In this movie’s telling, every artist was fully formed the minute they stepped onto the CBGB stage, with no room for growth.

Don't ask what's in the bucket. Ashley Greene and Alan Rickman as Lisa and Hilly Kristal. © Copyright XLrator Media.

The low point comes when a young preppy weirdo haltingly announces that the name of this band is Talking Heads, and he and his compatriots launch into “Psycho Killer,” sounding exactly like you’ve been hearing it on FM radio for umpteen years. The scene verges on camp as the camera resorts to portentous low angles and pulls in on Kristal and the handful of other people sitting around, their jaws all but hitting the floor as this art-rock godhead stands revealed before them.

As the bands come and go, Kristal and his wacky, bedraggled sidekicks cope with bad plumbing, junkies in the back alley, and mobbed-up extortionists. Through it all, Hilly’s dog keeps shitting on the floor of the club, which the screenwriters are convinced is a hilarious running gag. This is a movie with a flair for the witless: a record company exec — guess what, he’s a flashy jerk — is introduced sniffing coke at his desk, as if in 2013 this would strike anyone as novel satire.

Perhaps this played as urban grit on the page; on screen it’s just silly. Whenever Hilly sets foot outside the club, the slightly comical rendering of New York’s decay in these years suggests he’s ambling through the same theme park of Fun City that Betty Draper warily ventured into via “St. Marks Place” this past season on Mad Men. (CBGB at least avoids the cliché of showing a guy lugging a TV set down the street.)

PUNK #1; Jan. '76; cover art by and © copyright John Holmstrom.

The milieu feels cartoonish, and that’s without the frequent interjection of actual comics: the movie introduces new characters and bridges scenes by switching to animated panels of a comic strip, complete with speech balloons and captions. The inspiration here is John Holmstrom’s newspaper/’zine Punk, which featured comix alongside photos of the CBGB luminaries (especially Debbie Harry — it was good for the circulation). The paper also ran interviews and broadsides against the culture of arena-rock dinosaurs like Led Zeppelin.

Miller had the glimmer of an idea in adapting these graphics into his movie. But the comics should have stayed in B&W and better evoked the aesthetic of a scrappy, insurgent newsprint culture. The drawings look bland in color, and they don’t summon up any impression of underground comics, the 1970s, or New York City. It’s as if the movie wants us to think comics were integral to the CBGB culture, while slighting the boho literary aspirations that drove figures like Television’s Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell and Patti Smith.

And speaking of Patti Smith, if CBGB has any value, it’s to show whatever director is fearless or foolhardy enough to tackle the film adaptation of Just Kids exactly what not to do.

CBGB will be released on Region 1 Blu-Ray and DVD on December 31, 2013. Just listen to the music instead!

2 thoughts on “The ‘CBGB’ movie: Punk’s not dead — or wait, maybe it is

  1. I’m just excited about the Kid ‘n’ Play reunion chatter you’ve no doubt sparked with this review. And really, if you’re gonna make the Snape reference for Rickman (who’s great in Bottle Shock, btw), aren’t you more or less obliged to report on how Ron Weasley did as a punk rocker?

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