It takes a lot of effort to take the underdog stomping grounds of New York’s top punk acts and turn them into the Central Perk from “Friends”—albeit with slightly more stain—but “CBGB” does it with total conviction. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; we’ve long passed the ellipses of punk’s heyday, and seen the paunchy transformation of many of its leaders into contradictive shills. So in telling the tale of Hilly Krystal, the club’s unlikely founder played here by Alan Rickman, director Randall Miller (“Bottle Shock”) could do worse than render the early-’70s punk scene as breezy broad comedy. He adopts that tactic and still falters though, deflating any energy or humor possible with his limp direction, sitcom consistency, and unfocused tone.
The music still remains, thank god. Miller managed to procure over 60 cuts from the legendary bands that trod on CBGB’s stage, and with them a smaller selection of their cinematic depictions appear. The Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Blondie, and The Police all show up before Krystal, who judges off-stage in his newly bought venue, a life of divorce and bankruptcies unable to weaken his boldly naïve business sense. Luckily the choice isn’t difficult to make; the first time Debbie Harry (Malin Akerman) and the rest of Blondie launch into “X-Offender”—perfectly on-key, mimed, and brilliant—we see the benign, Cliff Notes shorthand of this story start to take shape.
That isn’t before we see the comic-book version, though. In a tonally bizarre framing device that never feels right, the film uses John Holmstrom (Josh Zuckerman), founder of Punk Magazine, as the audience proxy into the venue’s happenings, and it also uses his publication’s cartoonish aesthetic as narrative punctuation. Thick-lined thought bubbles, on-screen sound effects, and freeze-framed panels bombard every scene; Miller seems to want to embrace the larger-than-life, caricatured status of iconic moments—an on-stage blowjob during a Dead Boys gig, or a snotty interview with Lou Reed (Kyle Gallner, looking like a bespectacled Eminem)—but they come off more instead like Ang Lee lent him his “Hulk” VFX team for a weekend.
Tonal issues aside, the film never finds a proper point of focus. It wants to feature CBGB as a living personality populated by rotating ranks of legends, but it consistently sticks to Krystal, a man who happened upon a scene while envisioning a country and bluegrass club on the Bowery. And as rich a character as those who knew Krystal purport him to be (via end-credits archival footage), here Rickman is utterly wasted, sidestepping droll and witty into nearly catatonic. The actor attempts to express an exhausted mind driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, but what initially reads as stamina just becomes a chronic stupor that chances upon positive outcomes.
In fact, the hidden weapon of the film is Ashley Greene (The “Twilight” Saga, “Butter”) who plays Lisa, Hilly’s fiery college dropout daughter. Determined to correct her father’s fuck-ups and put the club’s finances back on track, she brings a sense of urgency and steely energy to the proceedings—finally someone is actively pursuing a goal. Next to club bartender Merv (a passable Donal Logue), slapstick bum Idaho (Freddy Rodriguez) and Rickman’s listless being, she’s damn near electric.
If only she knew how easily the script would resolve its conflicts. Finances form the central plot struggle hanging over Hilly’s head; he’s hounded daily by Lisa and Merv for cash to run the venue, while he continues to put on free shows and sleep on rancid mattresses the rest of the time. But the threat of bankruptcy remains just that—a warning. The gigs still go on, the alcohol still flows with regularity, and when the situation reaches its most dire point, the film quickly negates it and abruptly ends.
As mentioned, the extensive soundtrack is chock full of quality cuts, but Miller strings them together like dim Christmas lights throughout the picture. Punk rock has always been accused of sounding the same, but here—each song faded into the background under every scene—its constant presence makes you see the detractors’ point. As for the actual gigs held in the film, we get 30-second glimpses of many half-hearted mime acts, but only The Dead Boys, Blondie, and Iggy and the Stooges get any sort of highlight status—the last of which blares “I Wanna Be Your Dog” over an embarrassing, tilt-shifting “crazy” montage of sex in bathrooms, vomit, and sweat.
There are certainly instances that nail the tone Miller was looking for: Bradley Whitford as a sleazy record exec, blowing coke and asking for moist towelettes, elevates the film anytime he’s onscreen, while there’s a certain pleasure in seeing actors like Rupert Grint, Justin Bartha, and Joel David Moore tap into displays of obnoxious punk behavior. One of the finest moments though comes with a grizzled biker’s horrified description of the venue’s fabled toilets. His performance is inspired, the mere thought of their filth nearly sending him to tears, but we’ve seen the commodes, and they appear nothing more than a sterile, art-directed attempt at grime. Which captures the divide between description and reality in “CBGB”—the more it talks up its New York punk roots, the more we see a Georgia-shot compromise. [D]