The Year Punk Bored: CBGB Could've Been Good But...
Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman) and his oft-pooping pooch in CBGB.
CBGB begins with a bit of misdirection. You think punk started at 315 Bowery. You’re wrong. It began in a basement in Connecticut with two ne’er-do-wells, John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil. There, according to the film—a mostly turgid, boring-as-hell, campy slog that gets more wrong than right—the two created Punk magazine, and thusly punk. Never mind that you can’t have a zine that covers punk if punk doesn’t already exist, or that McNeil’s contention that he coined the term has long been disputed. CBGB treats his claim as gospel. It’s the film’s lede.
From there, we’re off to the wrongheaded races.
Cut to: a baby jumping from its crib and running for miles through a Hightstown, New Jersey, chicken farm before nearly being run over by his parents’ speeding pickup truck in pursuit of their missing son. Their boy’s crib jailbreak and subsequent marathon is “just not normal,” they say, pointing out the obvious in order to drive home an unsubtle point: This baby is special.
Cut to: that baby, 40 years later and all grown up, bored to tears in front of a judge who sternly (and conveniently) runs down his bio for the audience. Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman) is a lazy, unimpressive, once-divorced, twice-bankrupt club owner, incapable of greeting rock bottom with anything more than a shrug.
He sleeps on a dirty mattress on the floor with his dog, whose overactive bowels the film feels it must remind you of every 15 minutes or so. He strolls leisurely through the hellscape that is lower Manhattan in the ’70s, until happening upon the Palace Bar at 315 Bowery, where he plops down for a drink and imagines what the joint could be if he slapped a coat of paint on it.
Hilly’s original vision for the place, of course, is to bring country music to the Bowery (CBGB famously stands for “country bluegrass blues”), but that’s in geographical short supply. He books Television instead, and the first jittery notes of “Marquee Moon” they belt out from the stage stand as one of the film’s few highlights. (Another, in an expert bit of casting, is actor Jared Carter’s uncannily resemblance to a young David Byrne.) The Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, The Police, Iggy Pop—many CBGB heavyweights are touched on in one way or another, none more so than The Dead Boys, whom Hilly would go on to manage, and who occupy an embarrassing and time-consuming side story that goes nowhere.
There’s a lot to nitpick: the way the movie is shot like a comic book for a tenuous-at-best tie-in to Punk magazine; the many punk icons reduced to laughable caricature (Richard Hell, Cheetah Chrome, Stiv Bators, and all of The Ramones, in particular); an odd emphasis on how often Hilly’s dog poops; the egregious Fresca product placement; the complete and total absence of anyone of color (save a knife-wielding Latino gang); the fact that the walls of this CBGB are covered in stickers of bands who—if we’re sticking to the movie’s timeline—have not yet played their first note, much less the club. But CBGB’s biggest problem is that it’s taken such electrifying source material and done absolutely zilch with it.
For example: Forget exploring the storied bands that called CBGB home, their relationship with Hilly, and how the whole thing came to be. Instead, there are at least four scenes in CBGB where Hilly, his daughter, and a sometimes-Scottish, sometimes-not Merv Ferguson (Donal Logue) sort receipts. In several more, Hilly’s daughter, Lisa (Ashley Greene, complete with New York accent she clearly didn’t inherit from her father), admonishes him for his woeful lack of business acumen and general cluelessness. “No wonder mom left you!” “No wonder your other clubs went bankrupt!” (Don’t even get her started on how he’s wasting money by not buying toilet paper in bulk.)
And forget Hilly the special baby: As an adult, he walks through his life in the rat-infested, crime-plagued, junkie-cramped Bowery with an odd detachment, a sad lump of a man who is always half asleep, rarely knows what the hell is going on, and is in constant need of rescue. Never mind that history has revealed him to be a shrewd businessman with an ear for talent and a preternatural ability to strike while the iron is hot. CBGB would have you believe he lucked into his life, that history fell into his lap with the thud of a Voice article about his club, and we should all thank our lucky stars he was surrounded by people who could see what he couldn’t.
The story of Hilly’s historic club is, of course, well-trodden, but likely unknown by many more familiar with the famous logo than the fact that it’s the place The Ramones were first given a platform. CBGB misses the opportunity to educate. But its biggest sin, unlike many who performed there, is that it also misses the opportunity to entertain.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.