“CBGB” the movie – thrilling possibilities but too many missed chances: a review

At Talking Heads’ 2002 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the band called CBGB owner and founder Hilly Kristal onto the stage.

“We want to start where we began,” Tina Weymouth said.

“He kept us alive,” Weymouth said of the inscrutable club owner. “He fed us and he supported us in every way possible.”

“He told us we needed to expand our sound and get a little more interesting,” she said. “And he taught us a lot about ethics, about how to treat people.”

One of the best moments in CBGB involves Talking Heads. The band takes the stage in the nearly empty dive and launches into “Psycho Killer.” And then Kristal and the handful of listeners catch each others’ eyes, as if it’s just now occurring to them that they’re watching something historic.

The testimonies from Weymouth and David Byrne are shown during the closing credits of CBGB, but — bizarrely — we never see Kristal, (played by Alan Rickman) interact in any way with the band. He doesn’t even talk to them — much less feed them or teach them about ethics.

And that’s sort of the pattern of the entire new film CBGB: fabulously interesting figures from the history of punk and rock pass before us, but we pretty much never see any real human interaction between those musicians and Kristal, the man responsible for so much of their future success.

Sure, there were a lot of major stars who came out of CBGB, and not all of them can be fully realized characters in a feature film.

But only rarely does the script allow any of those musicians to live and breathe, even for a moment — rarely do they become more than just mimics or caricatures.

Later in the movie, as Kristal, now manager of The Dead Boys, tries to respond to the stabbing of Johnny Blitz, he yells at Stiv Bators (Justin Bartha) and Cheetah Chrome (Rupert Grint):  “I’m not your father! I’m just your manager! I can’t do this anymore!”


We haven’t seen anything remotely paternal in Kristal’s relationship with the young punk band. The sudden outburst comes from somewhere out beyond left field.

The lack of human contact between Kristal and the musicians is perhaps the most puzzling of all the choices in the script by husband and wife team Jody Savin and Randall Miller (Miller also directs).

The poor character development is especially notable in the brief appearances of Iggy Pop (Taylor Hawkins) and Lou Reed (Kyle Gallner), both of whom come across as self-obsessed buffoons.

Terry Ork (Johnny Galecki) gets even worse treatment. A band manager, label owner, and something of a visionary, Ork was largely responsible for Television and deserves considerable credit for putting both the band and the club at the vanguard of American music. But in CBGB, all we see of Ork is his slightly smarmy attempt to get the band on stage and his offer to give  Iggy Pop a blow job.

So, if we aren’t seeing Kristal interact with the musicians, what takes up all the screen time?

Ashley Greene as Hilly’s daughter Lisa is especially unlikable. We don’t see a single moment of true warmth between father and daughter, and there’s even an embarrassing moment when Greene seems to be channeling Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny.

Twice in the film, characters fall asleep with the water running, flooding the floor below. Really?

We’re treated to several uninteresting scenes with Kristal interacting with a stereotypical cop.

The club might have been legendary for Hilly’s dog Johnathan taking dumps everywhere, but dog shit jokes wear thin pretty fast on screen. Ditto for jokes about rats and roaches.

And do we really need to see a montage sequence of a character buying a pair of boots?

The filmmakers have tried to deal with the episodic nature of the script by using comic book imagery reminiscent of Punk magazine to leap from one scene to another. At first this seems like a clever framing device, but it quickly wears thin, further diminishing the already shallow story.

But the music is at least great, right?

The film uses studio versions of classic songs even when there are existing live recordings from the club — raw renditions that might have given CBGB a much-needed jolt.  (Click here for a post with a number of live videos from CBGB’s early days.)

And, inexplicably, hardly any of the performance scenes in the film continue for more than 30 seconds without being interrupted by distracting dialogue, running jokes about the club’s seediness, or other extraneous elements. Viewers are given only the briefest of chances to immerse themselves in the music; we never have a chance to feel either the innocent wonder or the sordid seediness at the heart of the story.

I could go on and on.

As negative as this sounds, I’ll say that I didn’t find the movie boring — it moves too fast for that.

And there are a few touching moments here and there, and a few stirring musical sequences, and I don’t think I could ever get tired of watching Alan Rickman, who famously made drinking tea a work of art.

But you’ll likely walk out of CBGB feeling like you felt after one particularly mediocre night at some second-rate club.

You’ll feel like you just missed all the good stuff that surely must be going down at some other club down the street — one with better music, better sex, better drugs, and better conversation.