Film Review: CBGB

The self-aware, stylistically mishandled <i>CBGB</i> tells an underdog story set against the punk-rock scene in New York City of the &#8217;70s, and offers some iconic tracks of the time along the way.

Who doesn’t love an underdog story? From Rocky and The Karate Kid to Forrest Gump and even The Social Network, the underdogs of mainstream cinema promise to deliver an unforeseen success story of an unlikely hero, of someone who’s bound to fail in life, yet with hard work and the help of some luck turns the ship of misfortune around. You would think the perceptibly rich true-life story of Hilly Kristal—a lousy, improvident businessman turned one of the accidental architects of the punk-rock music movement (played by Alan Rickman, in a performance that sadly feels borrowed from his portrayal of Severus Snape)—would be a sure-fire bet to provide the sufficient source material for a great underdog film. Honestly, what background can be more tantalizing than that of a serial failure who borrows money to buy a club which eventually becomes the launch pad of the underground music scene of the ’70s and early ’80s in NYC?

Unfortunately, in Randall Miller’s CBGB, this promising material is squandered by pretty awkward and largely unsatisfying results. Apart from a few rare and honest moments that fully transport you into a period of New York where social and economic distress was offset by a new moment in music and art, CBGB generally feels like a misstep, with self-aware characters all stuck in a movie that can’t decide what it wants to be stylistically.

The story starts with whimsical scenes of Hilly’s childhood, including symbols that hint toward the upward battle he is bound to face in life, establishing a colorful, comic-book-like look (through split-screens and title-cards with quirky fonts) which emerges on and off throughout the film. This eccentric approach oddly competes with the already eccentric life of Hilly, set mostly in his wacky/chaotic club CBGB, in which he intends (at least originally) to feature bands performing Country, Bluegrass and Blues genres (hence, the acronym) but instead gives a platform to newbie bands to perform when it proves impossible to book the artists he initially wanted to go after.

Confusing stylistic choices aside, CBGB takes its most unfortunate hit from its self-conscious attitude. The limited to nonexistent character development makes it all the more frustrating to watch the key real-life figures acting as if they already know that one day history will remember them as instigators who spearheaded a movement and changed the game as we know it. Starting with Hilly, all characters—including his disapproving daughter Lisa (Ashley Greene), the only person in the club with a responsible business sense—display a certain level of inapprehensive, unconcerned attitude, as if they already know the dump they are attached to (with its infamously dirty bathroom, a secret chili recipe, and a pet dog known for its overactive bowels) will one day become something of importance. This, combined with an uneven script that can’t quite find its tone between being a comedy or a biopic, is the main reason CBGB doesn’t hold up as a plausible, entertaining period piece.

A rare moment when the movie gets close to finding a beating heart occurs as Hilly tries to produce a record for The Dead Boys (with one of the members played amusingly by Rupert Grint), a band too unruly to deliver upon the seriousness required by the trade. As Hilly stubbornly insists on sticking with them despite producer Genya Ravan’s (Stana Katic) warnings, his humanity surfaces in a brief glimpse that makes you wish for more of this kind of sincerity. But the film quickly staggers back to its general indifference and a false sense of a climax that is often hinted at yet never realized.

If there is anything to like here, it is of course the iconic music. When you’re not dwelling on the lack of an engaging plot, CBGB bestows some mighty fine company with tracks from the likes of Talking Heads (see the scene where they perform “Psycho Killer”), The Police, Ramones, Blondie (with Malin Akerman as Deborah Harry), Patti Smith (Mickey Sumner) and Iggy Pop (Taylor Hawkins). You will just need to overlook the bad lip-synching every now and then.