CBGB is a terrible movie about the birth of the legendary New York punk club in the mid-’70s. It’s shapelessly written, dully paced and has less Noo Yawk authenticity than a Ramones T-shirt from Hot Topic. It makes a stab at an American Splendor-style melding of comic book graphics and live action, but in the dopiest, most uninteresting ways possible. It uses the art of Punk magazine co-founder/cartoonist John Holmstrom to convey redundant information (spelling out the name of bands that have already announced their own name), and slap cutesy onomatopoeia on scenes in a style not seen since Adam West landed his last “Biff!” and “Pow!”
History and chronology are wobbly; songs (like Patti Smith doing “Because the Night”) are sung years before they would have been written, while the posters and stickers decorating the bar advertise bands that had yet to be formed according to the movie’s timeline. The film was shot on a Bowery set reconstructed in Savannah, Georgia, which accounts for the tight outdoor scenes of a curiously underpopulated New York City; even the trash looks too clean. The filmmakers spend an inordinate amount of time on Freddy Rodriguez’s “lovable junkie with a pet rat” character and on CBGB founder Hilly Kristal’s copiously crapping dog, playing it all for non-threatening-to-the-suburbs laughs. The result is unwatchable, with a fatal lack of feeling for the music and musicians it purports to champion. At its worst moments (pretty much whenever the Ramones are onscreen), it’s breezily condescending.
The story is uncompelling: the eccentric Hilly (played by a near-comatose Alan Rickman) has had several failed businesses and stumbles into the punk scene when he opens what he thinks is going to be a country, bluegrass and blues club. His estranged adult daughter Lisa (Ashley Greene) goes to work for him as the club’s business manager. They fight, he fires her, she refuses to leave and eventually they Come Together As a Family to save the club. The movie is inert, partly because the late Kristal, though beloved, was not exactly a ball of fire as a personality on which to hang a story. The phlegmatic club owner spoke super-slowly, in a sonorous baritone, which is where the casting of Rickman comes in, I suppose. But therein lies another problem. Though outfitted in shlumpy overalls and flannel shirts, Rickman plays Kristal on his default setting of lordly disdain, with the usual curled lip, raised eyebrow and pregnant pauses. I didn’t believe for a minute that Rickman’s Hilly could ever be comfortable around the Bowery stench of feces, vomit and stale beer.
CBGB skims the surface and never really goes anywhere. Halfway through, plot momentum shuts down entirely and we get a parade of scenes in which Kristal simply introduces costume party versions of Patti Smith, Blondie, Iggy Pop, Talking Heads, etc. They sing a few bars, and Punk Happens.
But here’s the best part: Whenever a band auditions for Hilly, they open their mouths and out come the pristine studio recordings of songs they haven’t yet recorded. You mean to tell me that at no point during filming did anyone realize how campy and artificial this looked? Did nobody say, “Wait a minute, maybe it would be truer to the spirit of punk to just have the actors do their own imperfect singing instead of lip-synching”? Hapless scenes like this make you wonder who made this movie and ARE THEY FUCKING KIDDING?
Ah, now this is a subject of which I have some expertise. CBGB is the work of director Randall Miller and his screenwriter (and wife) Jody Savin, who brought us the equally tone-deaf ’70s Napa Valley vs. France wine wars dramedy, Bottle Shock, and the sub-Guy Ritchie caper movie Nobel Son, both of which are every bit as meandering and inept as CBGB. (In a pro-CBGB feature article last Sunday, the New York Times charitably called Bottle Shock and Nobel Son “small, well-received independent films,” which might be true, if you consider Rotten Tomatoes “fresh” scores of 48% and 26%, respectively, to fall under the umbrella of “well-received.”)
Perhaps you’re wondering how I, someone who is not a movie critic and therefore not paid to watch crap like this, would even know about the Miller-Savin oeuvre. Well … at some time or another (like, 20 years ago), I may have been captivated by a certain Mr. Rickman and even though the thrill is gone, old habits die hard — haha, get it, Die Hard? Old crushes are like phantom limbs sometimes. Anyway, Rickman starred in all three of these movies and I’m finally able to put my vast knowledge of his often obscure and puzzling cinematic choices to good use.
It’s amazing how Miller and Savin keep landing casts of hundreds (Chris Pine, Mary Steenburgen, Bill Pullman, Dennis Farina, John Goodman, Danny DeVito, Malin Akerman and Johnny Galecki have all appeared in one or several of their movies), given that their finished products all look like basic cable movies done on the cheap — Bottle Shock “transformed” downtown Sonoma, California into Paris, France through the magic of a few French posters and baguettes.
And Alan, oh fair Alan! Why the hell hast thou, who worked with some of the world’s greatest directors and screenwriters from Anthony Minghella to Alfonso Cuaron to Ang Lee (and that’s only the A’s), repeatedly judged these scripts to be worth your time? Did you always yearn to play a character who breaks wind in Mary Steenburgen’s face (Nobel Son)? Or one who shuffles around in a Little Orphan Annie wig (CBGB)? Was it the prospect of a Wine Country vineyard crawl? A leisurely Savannah interlude? Or do you just have a fondness for deeply mundane moviemaking? (Note to self: Remember Love Actually? Question answered.)
And while we’re pondering the enigma that is Alan Rickman, how can it be that a veteran actor like Himself can’t master a credible American accent in CBGB without veering off into odd clipped British inflections and Professor Snapeish line readings? I mean, even Ron Weasley manages a convincing American mumble here as the Dead Boys’ Cheetah Chrome.
Well, anyway, I’m sure CBGB will attract an audience, part of which will be there solely to see Snape and Ron (moon-white Rupert Grint ass alert!) together again on the big screen. Meanwhile, Miller and Savin have already announced their next project, a Gregg Allman biopic. I eagerly await Alan Rickman’s version of “Whipping Post”.
UPDATE (3/10/15): That Gregg Allman biopic, which was to be titled Midnight Rider and had William Hurt in the lead as Allman, proved to be the downfall of Randall Miller and Jody Savin. On the first day of filming in February, 2014, a young assistant camera operator was killed by a moving train while Miller and crew were filming on a trestle without permits. On March 9, 2015, Miller accepted a plea deal just before he and Savin were to stand trial for involuntary manslaughter. Under terms of the deal, Miller goes to jail for two years and will be on probation for an additional eight, under which he is barred from working in any filmmaking capacity for which he is responsible for the safety of others. In exchange for Miller’s guilty plea, charges were dropped against Savin.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2013, 2015