“CBGB” is punk, but maybe not in the way that director Randall Miller intended. Written by Miller and Jody Savin, they try to recreate that wild and reckless era in the 70s when all you needed was the chance to get onstage at Hilly Kristal’s club in the still-unsafe and beyond marginal Bowery in New York.
Hilly Kristal was a dreamer who loved music and loved bars. By the time this story begins, Hilly had already gone bankrupt twice in his previous attempts at being the host with the most. His dream was a club in New York where people would flock to hear the country, bluegrass and blues he loved; hence the name C(country) BG (Bluegrass) B (Blues). The only bar he could afford, and even that was debatable, was a derelict storefront in a bad part of the Bowery, an oxymoron because all of the Bowery was bad. What he failed to take into consideration was the fact that no artist of any renown or reputation was going to put his or her life in danger by entering the district, let alone his bar.
But Hilly was not to be deterred and just changed focus. Convinced that music was what patrons sought, he brought in any band willing to play the venue hoping that the crowds would follow. And the crowds did; just not the kind of crowds anyone imagined. Most of the bands were loud; a lot of the bands sucked; but sometimes, and Hilly seemed to be an open-minded judge of “good,” they turned out to be great or at least leaders in the next wave called Punk. Hilly gave a start to Television, The Dead Boys, Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, the Ramones and The Police among others. The soundtrack, using the original cuts, is outstanding.
The focus here is Hilly, one of the most interesting characters within the world of rock ‘n roll. The story is all there but the energy is missing, a strange thing to say about a film that is packed with the antics of the bad boy bands of the 70s. When a band is performing or acting out, as is most often hilariously the case with the Ramones, the film takes flight. When, however, the financial ills and bad management of Hilly takes the lead, the story comes to a standstill. If Hilly was as genuinely flat as he is portrayed by the usually outstanding Alan Rickman, then a different focus should have been found. To say that Hilly is portrayed with dull affect would be an understatement. Hilly was a bad businessman, but surely he wasn’t as boring as this.
It certainly didn’t help that so many of the actors opted for curious accents. Apparently no one has ever informed them, and this would have been Miller’s job, that a bad accent is worse than no accent at all. What were they thinking? In the head scratching- category is Donal Logue’s curious British accent, Tana Stanic’s curious New Yorkese (Bronx or Brooklyn or whatever) and, most of all, Freddy Rodriguez’s incomprehensible mumbles – something he also employed to bad effect on stage in “American Buffalo” at the Geffen this past season.
There were numerous recognizable faces who were clearly having a good time and while not forwarding the action or leaving an indelible mark on the silver screen, did themselves no great harm. No new, or even old, ground was broken, but Bradley Whitford probably had a lot of fun playing a coked out record exec; Johnny Galecki got to play a gay rock manager who offers a service to Iggy Pop; Estelle Harris is fun in a throw-away role as Hilly’s mother who lends him the money to get started; Justin Bartha gets to be a bad boy; but most of all, Rupert Grint shines as a member of The Dead Boys named Cheetah. Not only did he nail his American accent, but he actually made more of the role than was written. Ron Weasley is dead, long live Rupert Grint.
Visually, Miller has opted for a “graphic novel” approach, often framing his scenes, literally, comic book style. Stylistically it brightens the palette and accelerates the pace. One only ended up wishing for more – more of the visual style and more of the music. Despite the urgency of the music, the film slows to a snail’s pace whenever there isn’t a fight scene or a band playing. Some of this is due to the flat, linear storytelling and some of it is due to the writers’ decision to try to include a sidetrack into a narrative on the beginning of punk rock by including a storyline on John Holmstron, credited with naming the movement and founding the magazine Punk, and his friend Leggs. Even their presence in the club interviewing musicians only served to divert attention from Hilly and CBGB. It was like taking a footnote and making it a chapter. It only slowed things down even further.
There’s a lot of information presented in the film; I only wish that it had been more engaging as it should have been.
Opens Friday October 11 at the Laemmle Music Hall and the Pasadena Playhouse 7. Rated R.