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A lightweight love song to a legendary rock club, Randall Miller‘s CBGB plays in many ways like a Greatest Hits record, re-packaging a beloved band’s oeuvre for sale at shopping malls. Its key asset is the unlikely presence of Alan Rickman as the New Jersey-raised Hilly Kristal, the bar’s owner and defining character: Depicted here as an endearing slob whose ear for the good stuff outweighed a myriad of shortcomings as a businessman, Rickman’s Kristal is an authentic soul in an ersatz world. The club’s fame with both hardcore punk fans and devotees of NYC’s late seventies downtown scene should earn it some box office attention, but Rickman’s performance is what moviegoers will remember.
Kristal enters the film as a man with little reason for optimism: Divorced and twice bankrupted, he nevertheless convinces his mother to loan him money to buy a Bowery bar he re-christens Hilly’s. It will soon be renamed, with a cryptic moniker standing for country, bluegrass and blues, but the musicians who seek Hilly out specialize in other genres.
“Hear you have a stage. We have a band,” says a promoter trying to book a gig for the then-unknown Television. Kristal figures they probably stink, but charitably muses, “maybe if they perform they’ll get better.” He agrees to let them audition, and from their first notes they sound immortal.
That’s because what we’re hearing is immortal: One of the band’s best studio recordings, with actors lip-synching. Anyone who’s spent time in rock clubs, much less in dives like CB’s, will recognize a disconnect between watching a band perform live and what we get throughout the film: Look-alike actors miming along to polished studio recordings, with none of the messy energy that makes one’s first encounter with a good band memorable.
Some of the look-alikes are spot-on — Television and Talking Heads, for instance — but the impersonations get worse with musicians who feature more prominently in the story: One’s heart goes out to any casting director (Richard Pagano, in this case) saddled with the job of recreating the wry sex appeal of Blondie, but Malin Akerman just can’t fill Debbie Harry‘s shoes. Who could?
Miller devotes much of the film to less glamorous action, recreating the griminess of the club and showing how its motley inhabitants — from the junkie in the kitchen and the Hell’s Angels occupying the pool table to Hilly’s pet Afghan, who frequently relieved himself on the bar’s floor — kept the place interesting in the daytime. The script takes viewers by the hand, signaling CBGB’s quick rise to cultural significance with flat dialogue — much of it coming from Hilly’s daughter Lisa (Ashley Greene), a detail-oriented woman who eventually takes responsibility for getting the club’s bills paid. Frequent use of comic-book panels and sound-effect balloons as storytelling devices nod to the juvenile-delinquent fixations of CBGB stars The Ramones, while encouraging viewers not to take the film too seriously as a slice of rock history.
Production Company: Unclaimed Freight
Cast: Alan Rickman, Malin Akerman, Justin Bartha, Richard de Klerk, Johnny Galecki, Ashley Greene, Rupert Grint, Taylor Hawkins, Stana Katic, Donal Logue
Director: Randall Miller
Screenwriters: Jody Savin, Randall Miller
Producers: Randall Miller, Brad Rosenberger, Jody Savin
Executive producers: Michael Arougheti, Gerry de Klerk, Melanie de Klerk, Kevin Foo, Nick Gant, Karen Hameed, Yusuf Hameed, Andrew Herwitz, Don Mandrik, Irene Nelson, Jay Sedrish, Michael Smith
Director of photography: Mike Ozier
Production designer: Craig Stearns
Costume designer: Jillian Kreiner
Editor: Dan O’Brien
No rating, 102 minutes
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