Judge Clark Douglas don't wanna play no country music.
50,000 bands and 1 disgusting bathroom.
Hilly Kristal: "What do you guys have for me?"
Facts of the Case
The year is 1973, and ambitious businessman Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman, Die Hard) has a dream: to open a nightclub in New York City spotlighting country, bluegrass and blues music. He's very excited about the possibilities when his club (which he dubs "CBGB") finally opens, but the general public seems much less interested. In his desperation to keep the club afloat, Hilly agrees to book a number of acts who don't quite fit with the intended vibe of his establishment…and manages to turn his joint into a success in the process. Soon, the club is playing host to up-and-coming young artists like Blondie, Talking Heads, The Ramones, the Patti Smith Group and many others—but will Hilly's financial irresponsibility prove to be the club's doom?
Throughout much of the 1970s and 1980s, CBGB was one of New York City's most exciting music clubs. Not a particularly glamorous place, mind you, but one that launched the careers of countless rock stars and which eventually became known for its exciting hardcore punk scene. A far cry from the honky-tonk joint Hilly Kristal imagined, to be sure, but life had a way of throwing Hilly curveballs on a regular basis. Randall Miller's new film makes a valiant attempt at recapturing the excitement and insanity of what the club was like during its heyday, but the film's considerable energy can't entirely mask the fact that it feels pretty shallow.
This is very much one of those biopics that places a greater emphasis on referencing cultural touchstones of the era that modern audiences will be familiar with than in actually bringing that era to life. The entire film has a, "Hey, check out this Famous Person who just dropped in!" vibe, which is enjoyable enough until you realize that's pretty much all the movie has to offer. Certain musicians play a bigger role than others—Debbie Harry (Malin Akerman, Watchmen) is figure of major importance during the club's early days, while iconic singers like Iggy Pop and Sting are merely bit players in this particular tale—but it's rare that the characters in the film feel like real people. More often than not, they simply feel like actors doing impersonations of pop icons.
Still, three elements keep the film consistently watchable. First, there's Rickman, who has been the bright point of three middling Randall Miller films in a row (Nobel Son, Bottle Shock and now this). While the actor doesn't do a terrific job of disguising his British accent, he's an enjoyably rumpled figure who has no interest in taking the long view of life (most enjoyably evidenced in a scene in which Hilly withdraws the final $300 from his banking account in a last-ditch effort to make a fortune). Odd accents and affectations are all over the place throughout the film, but Rickman overcomes them and creates a memorable character (second prize goes to Harry Potter star Rupert Grint, who is alarmingly convincing as a beefy, reckless punk rocker).
The second and third elements are the music and visual design of the film, which make it a pleasing experience on an aesthetic level if not on a dramatic one. As you might expect, terrific tunes are littered all over the soundtrack (a mix of classic recordings and convincing imitations), giving the whole affair an extra kick. Additionally, Miller adopts a comic book visual style reminiscent of Ang Lee's Hulk (though even more aggressive here), using multiple panels, word balloons and many footnotes to keep audiences up to speed without getting too bogged down in exposition. The basic framework for a very good film is here: it has the style and cast it requires, but not the substance.
CBGB has received a reasonably satisfactory DVD transfer, though the image is occasionally on the murky side due to the club's poor lighting. The only time I had a real problem was during the end credits, when a handful of "here's what happened to these folks" tidbits were presented in a font too small to read in 480p (I was watching the film on a 50" HDTV). The Dolby 5.1 surround track is perfectly satisfactory, at its best when the music is blaring but generally consistent throughout. Supplements include a commentary with Miller, writer/producer Jody Savin and producer Brad Rosenberger, some outtakes and a couple of deleted scenes.
CBGB certainly offers enough enthusiasm for its subject matter to remain engaging throughout, but it never quite manages to dig beneath the surface.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: XLrator Media
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