I wasn't there. I won't pretend. Well, technically I was there once, I had a beer and I saw the bathroom, the bar was open. But there weren't any bands on, it was sometime in the early 2000s and it was rad to see and all but the point is, I didn't witness the birth of American punk. Odds are pretty good you didn't either. It was a small scene that exploded and changed the world, it was and still is a very important part of pop culture history, the impact of which is still very relevant. Telling the story of CBGB and its importance in what it spawned was probably inevitable, it had to happen sooner or later. Now, thanks to director/co-writer Randall Miller and co-writer Jody Savin, for better or worse, it has, and it feels very fake, forced and commercialized.
The main part of the story follows Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman), a down on his luck club owner with a rebellious streak in him. We know he's got a rebellious streak because when we first meet him he's an infant who escapes from his crib and somehow manages to get out of the house, forcing his parents to chase him down in the middle of the night. From there, we learn he's divorced and has had two bankruptcies but he's not giving up on his dream of running a club. When he stops into a dive bar on Bowery for a beer one afternoon, he finds the perfect place and after a loan from his mother, he and his pal Merv (Ryan Hurst) are building a crummy little stage in the corner and painting CBGB on the awning outside. Why? Because Hilly thinks country is gonna be the next big thing. Country, Bluegrass and blues, that is.
It doesn't work out that way though. Hilly has trouble getting anyone into the bar and so when a guy named Terry Ork (Johnny Galecki) shows up wanting Hilly to check out a band he manages called Television, he figures why not and he gives it a shot. Around this time his daughter, Lisa (Ashley Green) drops out of school and needs a job. He employs her and she keeps on him about the books, but he pays finances no mind. He has a vision. Soon Television starts to take off, the darlings of the lower Manhattan underground music scene that's starting to flourish, and before know it bands like Blondie, The Ramones and The Dead Boys are hanging around looking for a chance to play at this dumpy little club with the disgusting bathroom. When Hilly figures that The Dead Boys are going to be the next big thing, he wants to throw all of his money into managing them and touring them and recording them, but things don't work out so well in that regard. But hey, at least his junkie friend Idaho (Freddy Rodriguez) and his soundman Taxi (Richard de Clerk) haven't bailed on him… yet. And if they do, well, he's still got his dog. While all of this is going on, an illustrator named John Holmstrom (Josh Zuckerman) and a writer named Legs McNeil (Peter Vack) are trying to get their magazine, simply entitled ‘Punk', up and running.
Taken as a document of the time it tries to portray, CBGB has some pretty big problems. If you're into the music it uses to tell its story and which plays such an important part in the venue's legacy, you'll probably appreciate the fact that they did a great job building the set to function as the bar and you'll also probably notice Black Flag and NYHC stickers and flyers around, quite a few years before their time. You'll grin a little bit when you see a Dictators sticker on the wall and then wonder why the Hell they were basically left out of the story all together, and then you'll start to get annoyed that The Cramps don't even get a mention. Of course, it'd be impossible to include everyone but those are kind of big omissions, and when you consider that the movie commits several minutes of its running time to showcasing a performance by Blondie in which Iggy Pop rushes the stage, insults the audience and does a duet with Debbie Harry on ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog' (which NEVER actually happened, they even acknowledge this in the end credits if you stick it out all the way through!) then you start to wonder what the point of all of this is.
And really, there isn't a whole lot of point to much of this. The movie is more of a series of random events than much of a story, it's certainly not a bio-pic, at least not in the traditional sense. Is it Hilly's story? Is it the story of ‘Punk' magazine? At times it feels more like a Dead Boys feature than anything else, the movie is just all over the place. On top of that, it uses goofy comic book style transitions, sometimes with moving word balloons and sound effects, almost every single time there's a scene transition. Not only is this an exercise in style over substance (though to the filmmakers' credit it does work in some of Holmstrom's admittedly very cool artwork) it's distracting and it feels out of place with the occasionally gritty aesthetic that is used anytime the action takes place outside the doors of the club.
And yet, despite all of this, the movie is watchable enough. It's not particularly good, but it is mildly amusing if you're able to distance yourself from the subject matter enough to see this as a movie, not as any sort of attempt at retelling history. A lot of the credit for this goes to Alan Rickman, who is actually quite enjoyable in the lead role. He's got an effectively burnt out look going on here that works well and his ‘don't give a damn' attitude works well enough. he's fun to watch. A few of the other supporting players are amusing as well, Rodriguez and Hurst being the best examples. As far as the cast hired to play the various musicians in the movie, some work better than others though in the credit where credit is due department, Rupert Grint of all people isn't a half bad Cheetah Chrome here. Malin Akerman is pretty enough but doesn't quite have the same sort of swagger that a young Debbie Harry manages to bring to the stage. The Ramones don't get as much focus here as you'd think, they mostly get throwaway lines and some really quick performances but Joel David Moore is fine as Joey. Taylor Hawkins as Iggy is… unnecessary. But Rickman carries enough of the movie on his back that it's more or less his show and if you like his style, the movie turns out to be not a completely worthless endeavor.
But what about the music? Well, most of the ‘live' bits in the movie are just a bunch of actors lip synching, some far more effectively than others, to pre-recorded tracks, the big exception here being The Ramones (there is no original Ramones music in the movie), whose music is used but it's obviously not the real Joey on vocals. Some won't notice, but the fans will. The music is an important part of the movie, obviously, it has to be. A lot of great tracks are used but a lot of it is fast, shoehorned in, and just sort of there. It's all very superficial, sort of meaningless, which makes it tough to get too excited about, but it is occasionally amusing. And Rickman is good in it.
CBGB arrives on Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer framed at 2.40.1 widescreen that is, some intentionally we assume, uneven. For as many crisp, clean and colorful scenes there are almost an equal amount of grubby, grainy dirty looking scenes that were likely intended to add to the whole ‘seventies New York' atmosphere that the filmmakers were trying to create. However, given that the entire film was not shot that way, it just becomes a little distracting. That odd stylistic choice aside, the quality of the transfer itself is just fine. Detail is quite impressive most of the time and color reproduction looks excellent. Black levels are strong and there are no obvious problems with noise reduction or edge enhancement.
The only track on the disc is an English language option provided in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio with optional closed captioning provided in English only. This is, for the most part, a pretty good mix. The music used on the soundtrack has good depth and range to it and the levels are balanced rather well. There are a few scenes that take place in the club that don't feature the directional effects as prominently as you might expect them to but otherwise things fare pretty well. The levels are well balanced and the dialogue, most of which comes from the front of the mix, is clean and clear. Bass response is strong without burying anything and all in all, this mix works well in the context of the story.
The main extra on the disc is a commentary track with director/co-writer Randall Miller, co-writer Jody Savin, and producer Brad Rosenberger and it's a decent enough track that gives a pretty good overview of what they were trying to do with this movie. They talk up the detail on the main CBGB set and how they strived to get the look right on a lot of the little things, and they express their admiration for what the cast were able to bring to their respective parts in the movie. This won't change your opinion on the movie itself but you do at least walk away from this track with the impression that the filmmakers had their collective heart in the right place.
Outside of that, we also get three minutes worth of two deleted scenes (one involving Hilly and The Dead Boys and one with Cheetah Chrome and a homeless guy) and three minutes worth of outtakes. The disc also includes menus and chapter selection. A few previews for unrelated Xlrator Media titles play before the menus load.
Watching Randall Miller's CBGB is like watching an infomercial for a ‘seventies punk greatest hits' collection or something. It glosses over a lot, it concentrates only on the bigger acts and it leaves out a lot. A whole lot. So much, in fact, that it almost feels unfinished. Granted, the filmmakers' intent wasn't to craft a bio-pic so much as it was to just make a fun movie but that's probably not going to matter to most of the target audience for the movie. The performances are okay and Alan Rickman is pretty fun to watch. Some amusing moments make it through and there is some entertainment value to be had here, but it's all so superficial and meaningless that it's hard to really recommend it. The Blu-ray looks and sounds quite good and it's got an okay commentary, but it's hard not to see this as a bit of a mess once all the dust settles. Rent it if you're curious, there are definitely worse movies out there than this. Just keep your expectations very, very low.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.