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).
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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.