CBGB Review: This Ain’t No Party; This Ain’t No Disco
I have no preference in terms of film genre, music genre, or film era. I enjoy biopics like 1954’s The Glenn Miller Story, fictional tales like 1996’s That Thing You Do!, and documentaries like this year’s sublime Twenty Feet From Stardom. I’m sure I could quickly name two dozen more music-centric films I’ve seen and liked, and then another two dozen after that.
So when CBGB screened at a theater near me, I jumped at the chance to see it. The biopic, about the famed New York nightclub, covers an era and a musical genre that has been missing from my film/music viewing canon. Surely it would become a critical entry on my list.
Well, it became an entry, at least.
With two failed attempts at owning and operating a successful nightclub, one would think that Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman) would try something new. One would be wrong; Kristal wants another shot. Because he has two bankruptcies to his name, getting a bank to finance his next venture is unlikely, so he borrows money from his mother to open Hilly’s on the Bowery, which later becomes CBGB. Out of the gate, failure #3 seems inevitable.
Fate lends a hand when Terry Ork (Johnny Galecki), the manager of the fledgling band Television, approaches Kristal in hopes of booking dates for the band. After a few stretches of the truth concerning the band’s musical style, those dates are booked. Positive reviews of the band in local papers – reviews which cite CBGB by name – help set in motion what will become music history: the birth of Punk Rock. More bands beget more buzz and more buzz begets more bands and before you know it, CBGB is packing them in until 4am nightly.
Despite Hilly’s repeated poor business decisions and financial irresponsibility (his head is as bad with business as his ears are as good with music), and with the help of a handful of people including Hilly’s daughter Lisa (Ashley Greene) and his old friend Merv Ferguson (Donal Logue), CBGB becomes the premier venue for punk bands to play their music and maybe catch that big break. Some of those acts include Blondie, The Ramones, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and more.
The film actually starts out not with the birth of the club, but with the birth of a magazine called Punk, created by cartoon artist John Holmstrom (Josh Zuckerman). Holmstrom and his magazine might be important to the early days of the punk rock movement, but it seems they also influenced director Randall Miller‘s filmmaking style. Throughout the film, scene changes and camera switches are made as if they are different panels on the page of a comic book. This plagues the film. It’s overused (we get it … comic panels like in Punk); it bleeds INTO the film (key words will be illustrated in large comic lettering to make the point … think POW! but presented as SEX! or DRUGS!); and character thoughts and bits of humor appear in thought-bubbles during scene transitions (if the thoughts are so fleeting, why include them?).
Speaking of humor, there is a lot attempted here, and most of it falls flat. Whether it’s the scene from Kristal’s toddlerhood that has a Raising Arizona knock-off vibe, or the incessant presentation of people stepping in Kristal’s dog’s poop (the canine famously leaves his messes scattered around the club), every meant-to-be-funny moment feels contrived. Shoot the character’s foot stepping in the poop/cut to the disgusted facial reaction from the character/give the audience a beat to laugh/proceed with the film. Every shot at funny hits like a bad sitcom.
But then the music plays and you want to put down the red pen and just take it all in.
Some songs you’ll recognize, others you won’t – but they all sound great. The soundtrack includes “Life During Wartime” and “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads; “Sunday Girl” by Blondie; “Spirit in My House” by Joey Ramone; and “Roxanne” by The Police. It’s an embarrassment of musical riches and for as great as it sounded in the theater, I wanted to crank it up louder, the way it was meant to be played. Unfortunately, as the filmmaking goes, Miller actually uses the music as a crutch – when in doubt, parade a young star in front of the camera so that we might get caught up in the music they’re playing and in the excitement of the “Oh my god that’s Rupert Gint as Cheetah Chrome!” moment.
It’s storytelling-by-distraction, which exposes the film’s greatest sin: it’s boring. This is a significant historical entry being presented and there was never a moment in the film’s 101 minutes that I felt caught-up in the excitement of watching history unfold. If you strip away the rockers and their music, you have dog poop, thought bubbles, and past-due bills. And you have them over and over and over again.
As for Rickman, he’s an arena rock band playing in a high school gym.
For a guy directing a film that chronicles a remarkable point on music’s timeline, set in a location no less historic than any structure in Washington, DC, and featuring a cast of amazing real-life characters who were artistically born at that time and at that place, Miller manages to present CBGB as simultaneously dull and silly, using gimmicks to try to dazzle the viewer instead of using compelling storytelling to engage the viewer.
Perhaps the meaning of the infamous acronym, which stands for “Country, Bluegrass, and Blues” should be changed to “Coulda Been Great But … .”