It’s sometimes difficult to know what’s more important to the annals of history, the actual events, or the people who participated in them. CBGB director and co-writer Randall Miller throws his lot in with the people, chronicling the earliest days of punk rock through a cavalcade of characters who themselves signal importance more than their time at the eponymous club or their immediate relationship with its success. But while that approach works often to highlight the iconic New York City music haven’s significance as a stepping stone for a ton of bands that went on to fortune and fame, it doesn’t quite capture the prescience of club owner Hilly Kristal in discovering a vital new genre, or at the very least overshadows it with stunt casting and a soundtrack that probably demanded more work than the actual script.
Alan Rickman (Harry Potter, The Butler) plays Kristal, an ambitious but feckless businessman who in the late 1960s unceremoniously opens a club in one of Manhattan’s roughest boroughs. Dubbing it CBGB in honor of its intended musical focus – Country, BlueGrass and Blues – he begins recruiting bands to perform, attracting up-and-comers like Television that don’t play any of the genres above. But they play original music, and they draw crowds, and before long, CBGB starts to find success, both as a destination for great music and as bona fide business. But when Kristal’s inattentive approach to management threatens to undermine the club’s burgeoning profitability, he hires his daughter Lisa (Twilight’s Ashley Greene) to run day-to-day operations, even as he becomes fixated on a new distraction – The Dead Boys, a band he hopes to produce and manage, if he can keep them from self-destructing.
Being unfamiliar with either the history of the venue or the early days of punk, I wasn’t ruffled by the film’s depiction of Kristal and CBGB, except in the sense that it seems almost impossible that the bar stayed in business given its portrayal of the owner’s complete disinterest in responsible business matters. But there’s undoubtedly something appealing about the Wild West days when clubs were dirty, unsafe and even scary, especially when their focus seemed to be on what was actually important – namely, the music. Unlike, say, Almost Famous, where a guitarist nearly electrocuting himself is treated with genuine seriousness, Miller documents the foibles of Kristal’s management style, and the imminent danger of his artists and patrons, with a sort of anachronistic bemusement that works as entertainment but would probably qualify as irresponsible in real life.
Rickman exudes the right kind of indifference – or maybe more accurately, selective attention – to make Kristal a compelling figure, a guy who embraced the contradictions between his words and deeds, perception and reality, and pursued the idea of finding greatness no matter how unlikely or shit-covered it might appear to be. Playing his daughter, Greene effectively shoulders the responsibilities of the nagging spouse Kristal never apparently had, and makes the most of a role that is frequently thankless. Meanwhile, the revolving door of guest stars portraying the many famous artists who passed through CBGB’s doors are generally memorable for one of two reasons: They either remind us of some weird quality about the person they’re impersonating, or give the person they’re impersonating one of their own weird qualities.
As Joey Ramone, for example, Joel David Moore perfectly captures the lanky, retreating silhouette of the Ramones frontman, while Kyle Gallner brings a pasty self-importance to his portrayal of Lou Reed. But whether these performances are cartoonish or completely accurate, Miller focuses on their presence at the club rather than their actual impact upon its history – that is, beyond each of them being one of the famous acts that got their start under the auspices of Kristal’s democratic process of selecting bands.
CBGB is indisputably one of the great rock ‘n’ roll venues of all time, and worthy of a film celebrating its history and its influence. But in focusing on the handful of people who did or didn’t help make the venue what it became, Miller’s film obscures or neglects the larger cultural forces that they were truly battling against, reducing a full-fledged movement into individual action. Ultimately a moderately effective overview of the club’s early years, distilled into sitcom-worthy vignettes without the kind of recklessness to make them seem truly dangerous, CBGB is the pop-punk version of a raucous, punk-rock story.
CBGB opens today in select cities.
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