The CBGB Movie Amazingly Wasn’t the Worst Thing in the World But It Was Still Pretty Terrible
Pretty much sums it up.
All punk biopics should be labeled as comedies. Putting punk in the context of a theatrical movie is just inherently laughable. Funnier than anything Adam Sandler’s done in the last decade, anyway. But since there are only so many times Superman can get rebooted per year, every once in a while, Hollywood takes a chance on a punk flick, with unintentionally hilarious results.
It happened a few years ago with that Germs biopic where the dude from A Walk To Remember really swung for the fences playing Darby Crash. (“Swinging for the fences” = spiking his hair and curling his lip.) There was also the Runaways movie starring Twilight mannequin, Kristen Stewart, and Sid & Nancy, which was half-salvaged by the presence of Gary Oldman. So when it was announced that a CBGB movie was in the works featuring The Ramones, The Dead Boys, Blondie, and Iggy Pop, it was like throwing up a red flag that said: BRACE YOURSELF FOR THE PERFECT STORM OF SCREEN-TESTED CRINGEWORTHY SHIT-EMA.
Sure enough, the early glimpses of the movie did not disappoint. For starters, half the actors in Harry Potter were cast in it. It was one Daniel Radcliffe appearance away from being billed as Harry Potter and the Iconic Club Prince. Then that goddamned poster which looked like something a high school freshman turned in as graphic design homework and was promptly given an F. Then there was that ridiculous trailer which didn’t help much (although the Ramones joke was kinda funny).
We wouldn't trust whoever designed this to make a flyer for a yard sale.
But amazingly, defying all logical odds, CBGB’s depiction of punk is not nearly as laughable as you might imagine. It’s actually sort of tolerable, bordering on enjoyable? OK, maybe not that far. You can probably chalk any enjoyability up to expectations being set so ridiculously low that you can smell the jizz on the floor of the CBGB bathroom. (Oh by the way, a joke is made in the movie at the expense of the sanitary condition of the toilets because of course.)
As far as appearances go, visually, the club interior does look semi-accurate, albeit not very chronologically accurate (how were the walls covered in band stickers before bands even played there?). The shots of CBGB from the outside are limited to the width of its awning, likely because the movie was filmed in Savannah, GA, two doors down from Paula Deen’s restaurant (no joke) and the surrounding palm trees and sunny weather don’t much resemble the piss-soaked Bowery of 1970’s New York.
So CBGB’s overall depiction of punk is meh-to-adequate. Not the eyeroll fest you might hope for if you are a cinematic masochist. But depiction of punk aside, as a film, CBGB is a goddamn fucking mess.
The only reason CBGB is even vaguely watchable is because at its core, it’s really a biopic about Hilly Kristal. But you can’t bill a movie as a biopic about a club owner most people have never heard of unless you want it to bomb worse than anything starring Taylor Kitsch. (Sorry, Riggins! TEXAS F’RREVER!!) With what he was given to work with, which is not much, Rickman nails it. Of course he does. The guy was Hans Fucking Gruber, he can handle the task of portraying a soft-spoken club owner.
Aside from Kristal, who is fortunately present in almost every scene in the movie, all other characters are just passing background people, reduced to one exaggerated trait. Lou Reed is ornery. Patti Smith is artsy. Debbie Harry tawwwks like a real New Yawwwkah. She actually says the line, “New Yawwk has gawwwgeous gahhhbage.” Would have loved to have been a fly on the wall for that 30-second acting coaching session. It’s a bummer to see all these iconic and complex musicians reduced to lame caricatures. It’s like seeing a movie about art where Leonardo Da Vinci is in a single scene and his only line is, “Yo, bros, where all the paint at!?” Also, Da Vinci is played by the guy who played the brother in Twilight.
He's not wearing a shirt so obviously he's Iggy Pop.
The writers really pound every message over your head like a boot from a stagediving Iggy Pop, which the movie goes out of its way to point out that Iggy Pop did definitely totally 100% for sure invent. That’s another grating thing about the movie. The whole thing has the feel of the old Paul Harvey Show that always closed with “...and now you know the rest of the story.” It gives endless backgrounds to things no one needed backgrounds about. In one brief, totally pointless scene, for example, the sound guy, Taxi, is fed up with always getting flea bites on his ankles as a result of Kristal’s dog, and walks into a thrift store and buys a pair of combat boots, implying that that is why punks started wearing combat boots. Even though it most certainly is not why punks started wearing combat boots. Either way, did we really need the background of the combat boot in this movie?
In another pointless pound-the-theme-over-your-fucking-head-with-a-brick scene, Hilly goes to the bank to take out money for...something... and sees a sign that says, “Save for your dreams” to which he quizzically replies, “Why would you save for dreams? Why wouldn’t you live your dreams?” Because in case it was not clear in the first 8,000 times they implied it, Hilly is a starry-eyed dreamer who is bad with money. This point is hammered home right from the beginning when the movie opens with a shot of an infant Hilly Kristal breaking out of his crib and running away from home. Seriously. That is how needlessly broad their portrait of Kristal is.
Everything that happens in the movie is ridiculously convenient and rushed. There is another scene where Hilly is playing cards with his biker gang buddies who tell him that they will do him a favor and stay away from the club to stop scaring off the club’s increasing number of attendees. Cool! Thanks, biker buddies! Didn’t even realize that was a problem until you just said it, seeing as how you guys were actually the most likeable characters until this point. See you later when Hilly calls you up to save him from loan sharks and you conveniently are hanging out right next door to the club at all times.
All of the problems just seem to magically get resolved like that. If it was a cartoon, the little idea light bulbs would be turning on above people’s heads at all times. Actually, the movie is sort of a cartoon as it is half-strung together by animation strips, which is supposed to be a kinda maybe sorta nod to Punk Magazine which is also kinda-but-not-really an element of the movie. It’s a weird directing choice and maybe now is a good time to list the previous films CBGB’s director has worked on: Adam Sandler’s Jack & Jill, Sinbad’s Houseguest, and Marlon Wayans’ The 6th Man.
Eventually, the movie just sort of ends. Hilly, as always, needs money for the club and his daughter somehow magically raises it from people in a manner that is never shown or really explained. She took up a collection or found it or got it or whatever—look, here’s a wad of money! Hooray! It’s a weird punk version of It’s A Wonderful Life. Movie over. Cut to a final scene where Sting and The Police are auditioning to play CBGB, which seems unlikely given that The Police already had an album that was pretty big in the UK by that point. But hey, do you guys wanna argue about historical accuracy or do you wanna hear “Roxanne!” [audience mindlessly cheers: “Rox-anne! Rox-anne!”]
If you have just skimmed through this review and scrolled to the bottom for a summary (smart move, by the way, kudos to you), here it is short and sweet. Movie: a mess. Rickman: awesome.
'CBGB' is out this week and the CBGB festival is going on right now.
Dan Ozzi once saw something in the CBGB bathroom that he never, ever wants to talk about. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi