I was seriously born in the wrong generation. While most young adults my age are cracking glowsticks and listening to DJs bump out electronica beats – EDM, whatever the hell they call it – I sit around blasting music that my friends complain is “yelling at them,” filled with monster riffs, attitude, and balls. While the true hardcore punk scene that CBGB depicts has all but died out, featuring musicians some would argue had no talent but tremendous personalities, I consider myself somewhat of a modern day punk, refusing to conform to the preppy norms of musical society. I want it faster, louder, more rebellious, and full of passion – but also played on actual drums, guitars, and other instruments. Man, what I would give for the chance to have one night at the CBGB club, drunkenly trudging around in the filth while some no-names called the Ramones thrashed about on stage – f#ck class, bring the chaos!
When Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman) opened the CBGB club in 1973, there’s no way he could have imagined the musical revolution that was about to take place. Originally slated to be a Country/Bluegrass/Blues club, the first bands Hilly booked were anything but. Featuring a bunch of rambunctious kids flailing about with their instruments, Hilly was watching the birth of an underground movement that would genre-fy itself with the name Punk. Bands like The Dead Boys, Blondie, the Patti Smith Group, the Ramones, Television, and so on, shocked the world with anarchy talk and general aggression, but since Hilly was the only club letting them play, CBGB became their home. We watch as Hilly struggles to keep a roof over his head and his bands, building a legacy that would not be forgotten. Hilly Kristal wanted country, but what he got was loud, brash, in-your-face rock n’ roll – and he became a legend for it.
Unfortunately, after watching CBGB, I’m not sure I still really understand who Hilly Kristal was personally, as Randall Miller’s film was more a puff-piece, pop-culture tribute to the punk stars of old, flaunting a parade of actors and actresses cameoing as your favorite hard-rocking faces. The problem is, I never felt like I was watching Stiv Bators or Joey Ramone perform, it was more like actually watching Justin Bartha and Joel David Moore lip-synch classic hits while dressed as the actual artists. CBGB felt very hollow, like a surface value experience, that was perfectly fine making silly jokes with the punk-rock stereotypes of old, instead of offering a prolific, dirty, raw portrayal of the most insanely chaotic, yet generation-defining musical movements arguably in history.
Only adding to the shallow nature of Randall Miller’s film, our director attempts to embody punk’s rebellious creativity by assembling his film like a comic book, complete with panel transitions and sound effect bubbles. Animals were suddenly given a voice through flimsily crafted talk-bubbles, hammer banging became accentuated with random “THWAP” and “THUD” exclamations, characters could speak their mind silently as if they were sketched in a Sunday morning cartoon – none of which helped highlight the seriousness and iconic imagery of CBGB. Punk was about sticking it to the man, losing yourself in angsty lyrics, and not giving a flying fuck about the bullshit world spinning around you, yet Miller’s film felt safe and secure because of certain creative liberties he took, with the child-like comic presentation being one of them.
Alan Rickman is an actor I’ve admired for years and years, but not even he could elevate Hilly to the commanding level he deserved to be on, as an insanely deflated screenplay sucked a majority of the life out of Hilly just to squeak in a few extra “people stepping in poop” sight gags. This is the “Godfather of Punk,” yet he was treated more as a prop, and his legend was never properly explored. Miller seemed more interested in exploring the bowel problems of Hilly’s dog instead of the ambitious, clueless bar owner attempting not to go bankrupt for a third time. Hilly was just another poster-child character stripped of all historical value.
CBGB is like one massive karaoke party for our actors, lip-synching their way through Punk history. That’s how much of the movie feels though – fake and forced. I never felt like I was being transported back to the rocking CBGB atmosphere, instead I was watching a hammed-up Rock Of Ages spin-off where they don’t even sing their own songs. It’s not to say I didn’t laugh at times and enjoy getting some sense of the man, the myth and the legend that was Hilly Kristal, but a genuine opportunity at something prolific was missed here. This airy, light, goofy explanation for the birth of punk completely missed everything the genre stands for, even though The Dead Boys gave it a pretty damn good run.
CBGB is like a cheap cover band - sure, you'll get some entertainment, but the experience is missing that original spark of life.