Hilly Kristal became known as the Grand Curator of Punk. As the owner of CBGB, the American birthplace of punk rock, he auditioned hundreds of bands and gave groups like The Ramones, Blondie and The Talking Heads their first big breaks. When he liked a band he’d say his now legendary catchphrase, “There’s something there…”
After watching “CBGB,” the Alan Rickman movie based on his life and club, I was reminded of Gertrude Stein’s famous catchphrase, “There is no there there.”
When we first met Hilly (Rickman) he’s a divorced father with two failed clubs to his credit. When he stumbles across a dive bar on New York City’s Bowery he sees an opportunity. Taking over the lease, he befriends the neighborhood’s junkies, bikers and musicians, even if his original idea of presenting country, blue grass and blues (hence the acronym CBGB) gets passed over in favor of underground music by bands like Television and The Ramones.
The club is a hit, but Kristal is a terrible businessman who never pays his rent or liquor distributors. That job falls to his daughter Lisa (“Twilight’s” Ashley Greene) who pays the bills as an endless parade of musicians with names like Iggy Pop (Taylor Hawkins), Joey Ramone (Joel David Moore), Cheetah Chrome (Rupert Grint) and Debbie Harry (Malin Akerman) create a new youth movement on the club’s rickety stage.
Punk rock was a glorious racket, a stripped-down music designed put a bullet in the head of the Flower Power generation. Loud, fast and snotty, the music was ripe with energy and rebellion.
In other words it was everything that “CBGB” is not.
Director Randall Miller gets period details mostly right—the film’s set features artifacts from the punk rock shrine, including the bar, the pay phone, the poster filled walls and the infamously funky toilets—but entirely misses the spirit of the times and the music.
A movie about punk rock should crackle with energy. Despite a rockin’ soundtrack, “CBGB” feels inert. The story focuses on Kristal but Rickman barely registers. The actor reduces the flamboyant character to a morose monotone; a man at the center of a hurricane but who doesn’t feel the breeze.
The impersonations of the musicians are mostly quite good. The surprising stand-out is Rupert Grint as Dead Boys bassist Cheetah Chrome. It’s as un-Harry Potter a performance as you could imagine and he enthusiastically embraces Daniel Radcliffe’s post-Potter habit of showing his bum as often as possible.
Others acquit themselves in suitable snotty fashion, but the recreations mostly made me wish “CBGB” was a documentary and not a feature film. It has interesting tidbits about the time. For instance when Hilly first meets the Ramones he asks if they have any original songs. They say they only have five tunes, four of which have “I Don’t Wanna” in the title while the fifth is called “I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.” It’s a funny story, whether true or not, it hints at the kind of details that may have fleshed out a film that spends far too much time focused on the club and not on the music.
Not that there is a shortage of music, but it feels more “Rock of Ages” than “Raw Power.”
“CBGB” takes an exciting story of an important time and shaves all the rough edges away, leaving behind smoothed over vision of a rough-and-ready time.