CBGB (2013) – Movie Review

CBGB is the story of Alan Rickman who after making thousands of dollars from the Twilight series decides to grow an afro and travel back in time to open-up a bar called The Mudd Club in order to see how long he can go without paying the bills or sanitizing the toilets. The Dead Kennedys help out by playing some songs in exchange for glue. The movie was an instant success; Roger Ebert lauded the film for its realism and sensitivity toward minorities and the public loved Ron Weasley’s portrayal as a flasher. It’s a stunning film, directed by Francis Ford de Palma, and wrought with awe-inspiring visual effects. I give CBGB a very hardcore C+.

*stops reviewing the trailer and realizes that there is actually a film called CBGB and watches that*

CBGB is the story of Harry Kristal, not to be confused with popular comedian Billy Cringle, who after a couple of failed attempts to run a business decides to become an owner of a bar which he christens CBGB’s originally attended to feature bands playing country, blue-grass and blues music; however, things don’t go as planned when his foul crap-den of a bar attracts all sorts of alienated kids, druggies and weirdos whom inevitably start the punk-rock movement of New York in the mid- to late seventies. Strangely enough, his failure of a bar-owner is what ends up making him successful, except for the part where he can’t pay the bills because he’s serving too many drinks for free.

The problem with the movie is that it focuses too much on Harry Kristal, whose story about barely managing his nightclub isn’t all that interesting. Maybe it could have been, but the screenplay is by-the-numbers. It also doesn’t help that Alan Rickman is being his usual Alan Rickman self, barely sustaining an American accent as well as playing his usual persona rather than an actual character; we never get a deep understanding of the kind of person Kristal was though this might be more of a fault with the script than Rickman’s portrayal.

Another reason why honing in too much on Kristal without doing anything substantial with his character is that it leaves less time draw the types of characters that were frequent occupants at CBGB’s. Instead, we get brief comedic vignettes and performances by look-a-likes portraying the likes of The Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones, Iggy Pop (though I don’t think he ever played at the titular venue,) Patti Smith, Television, Lou Reed, etc. And none of the depictions are all that interesting. I guess it kind of works for the viewer gets a sense as to the type of place CBGB’s was and what the time was like back then, especially surrounding the music scene, but there’s still a desire for something a bit more significant when watching; the movie, simply, is too lightweight.

I mean, the movie is okay if you want a fun romp, except that the movie isn’t all that fun. Most of the scenes that are meant to be funny tend to fall flat. There’s a running gag with Crystal’s dog, the joke being is that it shits everywhere. And there’s also Harry Crystal’s buddy whose into all sorts of drugs named Idaho (played by Freddie Rodriguez) who I guess is supposed to be the comic-relief.

I guess some of the scenes where the actors lip-synch to the songs are alright, though their use of using the highly-polished, studio versions that you’ve heard on the radio numerous times before took me out of the movie a couple of times. Like, when the Talking Heads are auditioning to play a night at CBGB’s, they play the song Psycho Killer, but the studio version that came out in 1977, but the version they were playing in 1975 (the year I’m assuming this particular scene is supposed to take place even though dates are never given) sounded a bit different. It’s hard to believe that it’s supposed to be live and by an up-and-coming rock group when the version of the song they’re lip-synching is so polished. Though I guess the fact that Jared Carter (the guy mimicking David Byrne) looks so much like Byrne sort of makes-up for it. But there’s also the fact that, when Blondie is shown performing a couple of songs, one of them is Denis. I’m not sure if they’ve ever played that song anytime earlier than 1978. Also, when Blondie was starting-out they had Gary Valentine on bass (or some other guy before him) but who ever was playing the bass player was bouncing up and down like Nigel Harrison, who wasn’t in the band until 1977 or 1978. When watching I assumed it was depicting the bands just starting out. By 1978 I’m not even sure Blondie were still doing shows at CBGB’s. I don’t know, maybe they were… Patti Smith (Mickey Sumner) later on plays Because the Night and that song came out later as well, a song she also wrote with Bruce Springsteen so she when she released that song she wasn’t just “staring-out.” This might seem like nit-picking (and it is) but the filmmakers had an opportunity to play songs that weren’t the ones that saturate radio stations, but I guess it’s easier to be lazy or something. I think they also wanted to make sure that the audience recognized who was who. Meh.

Since the movie lacks depth and insight and everything else, director Randall Miller decided to slather every other frame with word balloons and stuff to make certain scenes seem like they’ve been culled from a comic book, the problem with this is that it is blatant compensation and never rises above mere gimmickry. The visual style just comes off as annoying as a result, as well as desperate instead of capturing the 70’s underground movement.

There are also some cliched narrative tropes that were annoying. Like when Kristal is at his lowest point after trying to act as manager for the band The Dead Boys he retreats to, you guessed it, the house he grew-up in in order to clear his head. But the biggest problem with the film is how it chooses to superficially capture its subject, instead fixating on the quirkiness as well as some of the pretentious narrative of the underground movement constructed by Punk magazine founder and editor John Holmstrom (Josh Zuckerman). There are some opportunities of satire as well as insight that could have been taken, but were missed instead.

The acting isn’t all great-shakes either. One performance I was confused by was Evan Alex Cone’s portrayal of Television’s original bassist Richard Hell who is constantly mugging and making faces; I’m not sure if that’s just bad acting or if Cone was trying to show how dedicated Hell was to posturing. If it’s the latter, then kudos. Other than that, you won’t find any good performances but mostly mimicry. Joel David Moore is at least slightly humorous as Joey Ramone.

The best I can say about this movie is that it could possibly work as a good primer for those unfamiliar with 1970’s rock music or the punk scene that included bands like Television or the Dead Boys. CBGB could have made for a decent comedy or even commentary on New York in the 70’s. There are some instances of where the movie tried to show what was happening, either to explain why the punk movement occurred or why the movement was of any import to begin with, with some heavy-handedness like when they happen to be watching Richard Nixon on TV or reading a headline that shows New York City was in the shitter. Unfortunately, it all falls flat.

Maybe it’s just difficult to make a good movie about punk music for it may involve too critical an eye on the various music scenes. Filmmakers want to poke fun, but not too much lest they alienate their demographic or realize themselves that their subject might not have been too worthy of their admiration in the first place for I imagine the people who are involved in these films are acting like fans first, and artists second. And I’m not saying that the only way to make a film like this is to be nasty with your subject matter, but when you’re covering punk music there’s a lot of things that are ripe for mockery. Other than that there’s also opportunity to explore other issues that are associated with alienation and rebellion, maybe address the underlying universality of punk rock, but I guess it’s just easier to take the easy way out and hire Professor Snape to mutter to himself while The Ramones play in the background. CBGB doesn’t add a whole lot and is rather mediocre, as a comedy, a music film and as anything else for that matter.

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