'CBGB' is Punk Junk

by Bill Gibron

11 October 2013

These are icons, not accessories in some Hot Topic cover version of "Teenage Lobotomy."
cover art


Director: Randall Miller
Cast: Alan Rickman, Malin Åkerman, Freddy Rodriguez, Stana Katic, Richard de Klerk, Rupert Grint, Justin Bartha, Donal Logue, Ashley Greene, Taylor Hawkins

(Unclaimed Freight Productions)
US theatrical: 11 Oct 2013 (General release)

If it was possible to sue from beyond the grave, CBGB would be in court for the rest of its sad, short, miserable cinematic life. Affronts to musical genres aren’t as hapless or hopeless as this awful expression of the punk movement in ‘70s New York. Actually styled as a biopic of club owner Hilley Kristal (played with all the passion of a paycheck casher by Alan Rickman) and his quite accidental role in giving a fresh faced cultural uprising a grimy, grungy home, what we get instead is celebrity impersonations by actual celebrities. Want to see Ron Weasley ape Cheetah Chrome? This is your film. How about Silk Spectre doing her best (worst) Debbie Harry? That’s here too. If you ever envisioned ‘the bruddahs from Queens’ as awkward, laugh worthy jokes, CBGB will provided such contempt and then festoon it with dog shit just to drive hope the point (Kristal pooch had a habit of using the club as its own personal toilet).
Those who like it weren’t there, or don’t understand or appreciate the original movement’s anti-dinosaur DIY struggles. Those who hate it - and it will be many - will wonder how so many of our heroes where hamstrung into allowing their songs to be used in this weak-kneed work. Granted, no one film could capture the magic that was/is The Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, Iggy Pop, The Dead Boys, or Richard Hell and the Voidoids in their prime. On the other hand, for one film to try is the height of arrogance…or foolishness…or incompetence. Any one or all of the three fit here. Director Randall Miller, whose made mockery out of real life before (Bottle Shock) does his damnedest to defer judgment, using the actual (studio) recordings of the acts in play, but thanks to rampant anachronisms and some significant miscasting, what we end up with is defamation disguised

When Rock ‘N’ Roll High School does a better job of showcasing the sublime talent that was Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy/Marky, when archival classics like Blank Generation illustrate what the scene (and CBGB’s) was really like, the version of events here is criminal. Heck, Stiv Bators in John Water’s Polyester is more perfectly punk than the sloppy stand-in here (Justin Bartha). Luckily, the overall film is so bad it won’t linger in the culture like JFK or other historic chronicles. Indeed, it’s safe to say that CBGB won’t be setting the benchmark for believability over how punk went from upstart to uproar within a disco drunk medium. Remember all the outrage when Green Day and Sum 41 were crowned the new kings of category? What we have here is the Broadway adaptation of American Idiot filtered through an Avril Lavigne LP.

We are introduced to Kristal in mid-crisis. He’s just gotten divorced and has, again, gone bankrupt. He borrows money from his mother (Estelle Harris) and opens up a Bowery dive bar, naming it after what he believes will be the next big thing in music - (C)ountry, (B)lue(G)rass, and (B)lues. Eventually, that dream is diverted by a ragtag group of goofballs who want to play garage rock but not by the rules. In between battles with his daughter (Ashley Greene) over the club’s failing finances and outings with his pal and right hand man Merv Ferguson (Donal Logue), we get one of the most incomplete portraits of a future punk fixture ever. Since the music is such an important part of the CBGB mythos, Miller is mandated to feature it. As a result, he goes overboard, letting his completely ill-prepared performs take the stage and lip sync. That’s right, not only do these actors not look or act the part, but they can’t sing or play the parts either.

Of course, this being the movies, said chops aren’t mandatory. But when you end up putting on the kind of shoddy show that Miller does here, a little authenticity would go a long, long way. About the closest we come is Foo Fighters’ drummer Taylor Hawkins as Iggy Pop, and even then, he’s never given a chance to showcase his own voice (head over to YouTube to hear him rage on Queen’s “Tie Your Mother Down,” or Led Zeppelin’s “Rock ‘N’ Roll”). Sure Malin Akerman shared vocal snippets with Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages, but considering that pedigree, her pretend Blondie is baffling. The really awful bits come with the clown concept behind the Ramones, or the poseur princess aura given off by true poet and legend Patti Smith. These are icons, not accessories in some Hot Topic cover version of “Teenage Lobotomy.”

Now, Alex Cox suffered greatly for his similarly styled handling of the Sex Pistols and the UK punk explosion with his still significant masterpiece Sid & Nancy. So, how did this filmmaker overcome the potential slings and arrows of inaccuracies and fictional liberties? Easy - he got two amazing actors (Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb) to stand front and center of his storyline and convince us they were actually Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungeon. And they WERE! Their work remains Oscar worthy. The cast of CBGB can only hope for a Razzie. They are imitators, neither viable as nonconformists or musicians. At least Val Kilmer et al could ape The Doors with viable authenticity. Here, everyone barely passes the Puttin’ on the Hits muster. Cox understood this and made sure Oldman and Webb were three dimensional beings first, (in)famous faces second. Here, it’s just superficial show.

The movie has other flaws as well. Nothing looks or feels right. It was made in Georgia, a million peach orchards away from the Bowery’s dark, dank realities and it’s impossible to believe that Kristal was this disconnected and/or clueless (Rickman, for his part, does a dreary laid back British interpretation of a New Jersey caricature). The non-singing supporting actors are ok, left to their own devices while more or less taking up space in the scenes. Sure, we could get hung up on Smith singing “Because the Night” years before she would actually make her song with Springsteen a hit, or how totally non-punk many of these so-called ‘anarchists’ are, but that’s beside the point. CBGB wants to turn a part of pop culture history into a viable entertainment. Instead, of heaven, this is Las Vegas, right down to the plastic, poorly envisioned performers playing the parts. 



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