Film Review: ‘CBGB’

CBGB Review

The music rocks, but little else does, in Randall Miller's sitcom snapshot of New York's iconic punk incubator.

A seminal moment in New York’s musical counterculture gets the biopic it certainly didn’t deserve in “CBGB,” which transforms the glory days of Hilly Kristal’s Bowery punk/No Wave club into exactly the sort of moldy sitcom one might expect from writer-director Randall Miller (a veteran of the middling, mid-‘90s Disney comedies “Houseguest” and “The Sixth Man”). Having the added misfortune of arriving in the same season as the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Miller’s pic suggests what that fractured valentine to the 1960s Greenwich Village folk scene might have looked like decked out in a parade of guest stars lip-syncing to golden oldies, and as much period atmosphere as the John Varvatos store that now stands on CBGB’s hallowed ground. Upstart indie XLRator is giving the pic a limited theatrical run following a month-long ultra VOD run on DirecTV.

Since leaving the studio fold a decade ago, Miller and his screenwriter/producer wife, Jody Savin, have turned out a string of modestly budgeted indies with name casts and solid production values but no real personality, the best of which, 2008’s “Bottle Shock,” was another (heavily fictionalized) slice of ‘70s nostalgia about Napa Valley’s emergence as a world-class wine producer. Miller and Savin frame “CBGB” as a similar underdog tale, centered on the ne’er-do-well Kristal (Alan Rickman) and his unlikely ascent from failed folk singer to punk impresario.

A shambling yet undeniably charismatic Jewish hustler of the sort whose natural habitat has always been New York, Kristal might have been a plum role for Elliott Gould or Richard Dreyfuss in their prime, while among today’s crop of comic stars it’s tempting to imagine what Adam Sandler might have done with the part. But for all his unquestionable gifts as a performer, the ineluctably Anglo, erudite Rickman is as glaringly miscast here as he was spot-on playing “Bottle Shock’s” expat British wine snob. He’s little helped by a script that reduces the character to such buffoonish proportions that Kristal’s success ends up seeming almost accidental rather than the product of a genuine nose for talent and sense of showmanship (honed during his years as manager of the Village Vanguard).

The movie opens with Hilly down and out, declaring bankruptcy for the second time after shuttering his latest failed night spot. But undeterred, he begs and borrows the funds (mostly from his elderly mom) to try again, this time in the cockroach-infested Lower East Side bar of the flophouse Palace Hotel. These are the dog days of New York in the 1970s, long before the LES became a high-rent district (even if it wasn’t quite the John Carpenter-esque wasteland depicted here), and Hilly imagines he can bring a little bit of country to the bowels of the Bowery. (The club’s famous acronym stood for Country and Bluegrass Blues — a type of music scarcely if ever played there — later augmented by the subtitle OMFUG, “Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers.”) But when a scrappy young band calling itself Television auditions for Kristal, the die is cast, and punk, at least in this movie’s telling (which excludes any pre-CBGB history from the conversation), is born.

From there, Miller and Savin reach for the Altmanesque, cycling through a who’s-who of CBGB headliners, as well as the journalists and music-industry suits who quickly realized something seismic was afoot. They include Punk magazine co-founders Legs McNeil (Peter Vack) and John Holmstrom (Josh Zuckerman), future filmmaker Mary Harron (Ahna O’Reilly), and ex-Goldie & the Gingerbreads singer turned producer Genya Raven (Stana Katic). None of them materialize as substantial characters, but they still get more screen time than most of the musical acts, save for the Dead Boys, the badly behaved (even by punk standards) outfit that Kristal ill-advisedly decides to manage. In one of the movie’s livelier perfs, Justin Bartha gives off a suitably high-voltage aura as the Boys’ stomach-slashing frontman Stiv Bators, with Rupert Grint as guitarist Cheetah Chrome.

Elsewhere, Mickey Sumner (real life daughter of Sting) makes a fine Patti Smith, berating the crowd for its failure to appreciate Rimbaud before launching into “Because the Night” (like most of the pic’s soundtrack, a conspicuous studio recording). And Jared Carter proves a dead ringer for the young David Byrne (who was living across the street from the club when he came in to audition for Kristal).

But far too much of “CBGB” is consumed by lowbrow shenanigans involving Kristal’s eccentric support staff, including Donal Logue as business partner Merv Ferguson, Freddy Rodriguez as a burned-out junkie recruited for kitchen duties, and Ashley Greene as Kristal’s exasperated daughter, Lisa, shown here to be the only voice of reason holding the whole shambling operation together. (The real Lisa is credited on the film as a co-producer.) In keeping with the film’s laugh-track sensibilities, nary an act can perform without the stage collapsing, the sound equipment short-circuiting, the ceiling caving in or somebody stepping in the copious dog poop left behind by Kristal’s diarrheic dog — an apt metaphor for how any serious punk aficionado is likely to feel upon leaving the cinema.

Though the club itself has been faithfully re-created by production designer Craig Stearns on a Georgia soundstage (including, reportedly, the real CBGB toilets), New York City location shooting is notably sloppy, with Kristal at one point catching a gleaming new subway train from the recently renovated Bleecker Street station. Michael J. Ozier’s widescreen lensing never settles on a look, seesawing between a purposefully grainy, ‘70s-era aesthetic and an anachronistically flat HD sheen sometimes in the course of a single scene.

Film Review: 'CBGB'

Reviewed at Dolby 88, New York, Oct. 1, 2013. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 102 MIN. 

Production

An XLRator Media release of a Rampart Films/Meddin Studios/315 Bowery Holdings presentation of an Unclaimed Freight production. Produced by Jody Savin, Randall Miller, Brad Rosenberger. Co-producers, Lisa Kristal Burgman, Andre Danylevich, Natalie Ige Muldaur, Ray Muldaur, David Paddison. Executive producers, Gerry de Klerk, Irene Nelson, Andrew Herwitz, Melanie de Klerk, Michael Arougheti, Michael Smith, Kevin Foo, Nick Gant, Don Mandrik, Jay Serdish, Yusuf Hameed, Karen Hameed.

Crew

Directed by Randall Miller. Screenplay, Jody Savin, Miller. Camera (Fotokem color, widescreen), Michael J. Ozier; editor, Dan O’Brien; music supervisor, Brad Rosenberger; production designer, Craig Stearns; art director, Randy Moore; costume designer, Jillian Kreiner; sound, Richard Lightstone; supervising sound editor, Kelly Oxford; re-recording mixers, Joe Barnett, Marshall Garlington; associate producers, Rick Pagano, David Orr, Kevin T. Foley; assistant director, Hillary Schwartz; casting Richard Pagano.

With

Alan Rickman, Malin Akerman, Justin Bartha, Richard de Klerk, Johnny Galecki, Ashley Greene, Rupert Grint, Taylor Hawkins, Stana Katic, Donal Logue,  Joel David Moore, Freddy Rodriguez,  Mickey Sumner, Bradley Whitford, Peter Vack, Josh Zuckerman, Ahna O'Reilly, Jared Carter.

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  1. Wish I knew about the film being made – it would have been nice to be mentioned as the only band to be barred for various offenses of temperament and occultism – after our December 26th show in 1976 when we nearly burned the place down! It prompted John Holmstrom to write in Punk Magazine – ‘Kongress, the most dangerous band in the world, is still not allowed to play CBGBs after an incident where they almost burned it down with their stage act. Hilly Kristal, the owner, said he wouldn’t let them play if they were the last band on earth, “They’re a bunch of sickies,” he says.’ http://variety.com/2013/film/reviews/cbgb-review-1200722877/

    • Brendan Rafferty says:

      I worked there for 18 years. We banned many performers.
      You’re not special.

      • Others may have been banned, but not for the reasons I gave. No other band was ever described by John Holmstrom in Punk Magazine as “The Most Dangerous Band in the World.” While I can’t be sure if he ever said it about any other band, “I wouldn’t let them play if they were the last band on Earth” shouldn’t be taken lightly. You weren’t there that night – we were VERY SPECIAL!

  2. Mark Dana Kristal says:

    I like your review. Especially your comments on director Randell Miller. Although, my father, Hilly Kristal did once manage the Village Vanguard and I was told he did a good job, he did not plan or use his so called nose for talent in CBGB. He along with my mother, Karen Kristal had much more of a nose for perseverance. No one planned what would eventually happen. Isn’t it obvious that anyone producing a film like “CBGB”, would probably not be a voice of reason for the beginnings of a new music era in a rock club? My mother was more the voice of reason at the beginning of CBGB, but she was never contacted by the producer’s of this film. It doesn’t seem as if the producer’s or the director were interested in getting to the truth, in the story and in the acting. And my grandmother
    is not the one that put up the money for my father to go into business. The person that did is revealed in the true story that I wrote. Dana Kristal

  3. Mark Dana Kristal says:

    I like your review. Especially your comments on Randell Miller. Although, my father, Hilly Kristal did once manage the Village Vanguard and I was told he did a good job, he did not plan or use his
    so called nose for talent in CBGB. He along with my mother, Karen Kristal had much more of a nose for perseverance. No one planned
    what would eventually happen. Isn’t it obvious that anyone producing
    a film like “CBGB”, would probably not be the voice of reason at the
    beginning of a new music era in a rock club. My mother was more the voice of reason at the beginning of CBGB, but she was never contacted by the producers of this film. It doesn’t seem as if the producers or the director were interested in getting the truth, in the story and in the acting. And my grandmother was not the one that put
    up the money for my father to go into business. The person that did
    is revealed in the true story that I wrote. Dana Kristal

    • marybolo says:

      Wondering if they tried or could not get the ok from the real neighbors of 3rd street. See that they were not portrayed as the true bikers that were good friends with Hilly?

  4. Mark Dana Kristal says:

    I like your your review. Especially your comments on Randell Miller. Although, my father, Hilly Kristal
    did once manage the Village Vanguard and I was told he did a good job, he did not plan or use his so
    called nose for talent in CBGB. He along with my mother, Karen Kristal had much more of a nose for perseverance. No one planned what would eventually happen. Isn’t it obvious that anyone producing
    a film like “CBGB”, would probably not be the voice of reason at the beginning of a new music era in a
    rock club. My mother was more the voice of reason at the beginning of CBGB, but she was never contacted by the producers of this film. It doesn’t seem as if the producer’s or the director were interested in getting to truth, in the story and in the acting. And my grandmother is not the one that
    put up the money for my father to go into business. The person that did is revealed in the true story that I wrote. Dana Kristal

  5. Buzz Fugazi says:

    I gob on this pop culture trash. punk is dead. long live punk.

  6. Mark Dana Kristal says:

    I ment to write. He along with my mother, Karen Kristal had much more of a nose for perseverance.
    And the next sentence I hope you correct is. It doesn’t seem as if the producer’s or the director were interested in getting to the truth, in the story and in the acting.

  7. Mark Dana Kristal says:

    I like your review. Especially your comments on director Randell Miller. Although,my father,Hilly Kristal did once manage the Village Vanguard and I was told he did a good job, he did not plan or use his so called nose for talent in CBGB. He along with my mother had much more of a nose for perseverance. No one planned what would eventually happen. Isn’t it obvious that anyone producing a film like “CBGB”, would probably not be a voice of reason for the beginnings of a new music era in a rock club. My mother was more the voice of reason at the beginning of CBGB, but she was never contacted by the producers of this film. It doesn’t seem as if the producer’s or the director were interested in getting to the of truth, in the story and in the acting. And my grandmother is not the one that put up the money for my father to go into business. The person that did is revealed in the true story that I wrote.

    Dana Kristal

    • JoanneBest says:

      Dana Kristal, I’d love to read your book, having been a regular back then there was so much wrong with the film it seemed like it was written by someone who had a huge hate-on for the Dead Boys…. it was cool to see my past on the screen but would have like it more if it was more about the REAL story. :-)

  8. Yusuf Hameed says:

    This movie seemed more entertaining than the reviews. Music was awesome and I don’t even like punk music. So many great actors, acting well done. Who really cares about lip syncing anyways. They should watch YouTube if they want to watch an actual performance. This is a feature film and not a documentary. I pay money to be entertained…I’m sure they had every detail correct in Gravity and Captain Phillips.

    • cc says:

      The difference is that Gravity and Captain Phillips are good movies with great reviews that people actually want to see. CBGB is suckass bad, and the only ones who will see it are the smelly Lower East Side homeless wandering off of Avenue C.

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