It’s obvious within the first ten minutes of Randall Miller’s “CBGB” that the film, revolving around the early years of the seminal New York City punk club, isn’t going for “Inside Llewyn Davis” levels of veracity. Punchy little intertitles pop up quickly, laying out time and place in a way that feels just so slightly comic-book-y. Perhaps it’s the font, maybe it’s the strange injection of decidedly subjective commentary, but by the time simple words explode out into actual comic book panels, “CBGB” has made its intentions clear – this thing is as inauthentic and artificial as they come, the absolute antithesis to the pioneering punk spirit it sets out to portray.
Loosely based on the rise of unexpected impresario Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman, a talented actor who still seems unable to rein in his British accent even when necessary) and his CBGB, the film imagines Kristal’s business philosophy as being centered around two dully delivered lines about both location (“Nobody complains about the noise this far down”) and booking green acts (“Maybe if they perform, they’ll get better”). Kristal has long been hailed as the godfather of modern punk and new wave music, helping such huge acts as the Ramones, the Misfits, and Talking Heads get their first big break, but the film itself doesn’t feel nearly as vital and bold as its subject matter entails. A lax narrative, a lack of investment in character development, and a timeline that starts and stops at seemingly random intervals punctuate the production, and the entire thing is as discordant as a middle school rock band.
It doesn’t help that the comic book stylings continue unabated throughout the production, weirdly employing onomatopoeic THUDs and ZZZZs when actual sounds are ringing out just fine (by the time it gets to GROANs and SPUTTERs, you’ll wonder if the film is just aping audience reactions) and slipping in opinionated observations that seem obvious enough based on what’s playing out in the main narrative. It’s a silly narrative device, and it keeps “CBGB” feeling fake even when a film about the legendary club should feel as gritty and real as its nasty chili and worse bathroom (both lovingly and filthily rendered here).
Most of the film’s many performances verge into terrible parody, as if half the cast was participating in a very bad SNL sketch (wigs and all) that they didn’t care so much about – especially Kyle Gallner as Lou Reed, the entire set of Ramones wannabes, and Evan Alex Cole as Television’s Richard Hell. Malin Akerman as Blondie’s Debbie Harry and Ahna O’Reilly as artist and filmmaker Mary Harron are passable enough to not fully offend, though Taylor Hawkins’ Iggy Pop and Mickey Sumner’s Patti Smith are both unexpectedly revelatory. If either ever takes on a biopic for their characters, they’ll surely be solid entries into the genre, much more so than “CBGB.”
As Kristal, Rickman is often appealing enough, even when playing up his character’s more frustrating tendencies (both his inability to be financially responsible and pick up his dog’s crap are frequently mentioned in the film). Yet he ultimately seems badly suited for the role as the lackadaisical visionary (it does not help that Rickman is twenty-five years older than the character he plays, which makes Hilly’s man-boy characteristics seem inappropriate and grating). He’s doing the best he can with the thinly written role, but it’s not enough to give Kristal his own voice.
“CBGB” does, thankfully enough, come complete with a hell of a soundtrack, including original versions of songs by such club staples as Talking Heads, Television, Dead Boys, Blondie, Patti Smith, and many more. But while the film’s insistence on using the original material during musical sequences ensures that it will sound solid (no, you won’t be subjected to Justin Bartha screaming punk songs here), the studio-quality sound is incredibly ill-suited for being “played” “live” in a tiny music club. By the time The Police show up and a young Keene McRae opens up his mouth and pristine version of Sting singing “Roxanne” pops out, it’s laughably distracting. Fortunately, the British threesome kick into their performance just as “CBGB” is wrapping up, leaving behind nothing but the ringing noise of a failed attempt at artistic transcendence.
SCORE: 3.7 / 10