Director: Randall Miller
Starring: Alan Rickman, Justin Bartha, Ashley Greene, Johnny Galecki, Donal Logue, Freddy Rodriguez, Malin Akerman, Richard de Klerk, Rupert Grint, Taylor Hawkins, Stana Katic, Joel David Moore, Mickey Summer, Bradley Whitford
With “Nobel Son” and “Bottle Shock,” filmmaker Randall Miller has provided a couple nice, meaty, showcase roles for Alan Rickman, giving the British-born thespian a chance to act snobby and standoffish and self-destructive. The pair’s trilogy of movies on the precipice of something greater — films with engaging protagonists and an interesting backdrop or pitch, but little sense of psychological depth — continues with “CBGB,” a celebration of the man behind the seminal New York City punk rock and avant garde club of the same name.
Despite an amusing opening that introduces its main character as a precocious little hell-raiser, the bulk of “CBGB” unfolds in the early 1970s. After two bankruptcies and an acrimonious divorce, sad-sack Hilly Kristal (Rickman, deliciously disheveled and droll) borrows some money from his mother to buy a dive bar in a grungy, rundown area of the Lower East Side. With his hardhat-wearing friend Merv (Donal Logue) and his semi-estranged, job-needing daughter Lisa (Ashley Greene) by his side, Hilly christens it CBGB, for the type of live music he wants to showcase — country, bluegrass and blues. Initially it only attracts drug addicts, bikers and other hangers-on, people with names like Idaho and Taxi.
Smooth-talking Terry Ork (Johnny Galecki), though, is looking for a place to book a band he manages, called Television. Hilly takes a flyer on them, even though their style is not of a piece with his initial vision. Soon other musical groups — arty, loud and/or otherwise of the misfit variety — are knocking at his door. And the more damaged and dysfunctional, the better; ever the champion of the underdog, Hilly takes arguably the worst of these bands, a quintet of rabble-rousing Cleveland junkies known as the Dead Boys, and agrees to be their manager. CBGB, meanwhile, becomes ground central for a raw, sociopolitically-charged, often nihilistic wave of counter-culture music — even if (or maybe largely owing to the fact that) its stage was frequently home to antics that included in-concert blowjobs, defecating dogs and copious vomiting.
Co-written by Miller and his wife, Jody Savin, “CBGB” chronicles all this swirling madness with a tone that might be best described as nimble bemusement. In films like especially “Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing and Charm School” and the aforementioned “Bottle Shock,” Miller has shown a penchant for surface subcultural exploration, and “CBGB” is no different. The time and place of its setting are the big hook here, and Miller uses interstitial comic book panels — complete with active exclamations like “Ptooey!” — to frame this entire tale as larger-than-life. It works for a long while, but eventually runs up against shallow characterizations.
“CBGB” more or less conveys a convincing sense of place; the malodorous production design practically gives off its own rotten stench (hat tip to Craig Stearns). But cinematographer Michael J. Ozier is handcuffed, either by schedule, resources, Miller’s staid vision or some combination thereof; the movie’s many musical segments don’t achieve liftoff like they should, and “CBGB” overall feels boxy and cramped.
Again, that would matter less if the script really got into the heads and hearts of its characters, but they remain mostly a mixture of ciphers and types. In addition to Television and the Dead Boys, Blondie, the Talking Heads, Patti Smith, the Ramones and Iggy Pop all cycle through the narrative. “CBGB” plays like a collection of beats, though. Hilly is a terrible businessman (he comps most folks’ drinks, stores cash in his fridge and doesn’t pay his rent), but Miller’s movie doesn’t root down into the pathology of this casually self-destructive behavior.
When the end credits roll with footage of David Byrne and the Talking Heads, at their real-life induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, summoning Hilly up on to the stage with them, it confirms the latter’s stature in music lore. It also reinforces how little one comes away really knowing about the man at the center of CBGB.
NOTE: In addition to its theatrical engagements beginning this week, the film will be available on VOD platforms beginning November 1. For more information, visit the movie’s Facebook page.
Written by: Brent Simon