'CBGB' is far and away the least punk movie about the birthplace of the '70s New York City punk scene that could possibly have been fashioned. It is a film so riddled with artificiality that any depiction of a genre that is generally thought of as an aggressive, endlessly energetic, and borderline anarchic comes off feeling, looking, and sounding depressingly anodyne and bland. It's as if the caustic expressiveness of the movement was somehow sterilized and censored by a group of parents concerned with the corruptibility of their children, and that's what director Randall Miller ('Bottle Shock') and his co-writer (and wife) Jody Savin were afforded the opportunity to work with.
Possibly more egregious than its bubble-gum interpretation of a movement that was anything but, is the fact that, at its heart, 'CBGB' doesn't quite know what kind of movie it actually wants to be. Is it a biopic of iconic club owner Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman)? Is it a film about the rise of an influential pop-culture movement and all the bands that got their start playing at Kristal's famed club CBGB? Is it about Punk Magazine creators John Holmstrom (Josh Zuckerman) and Legs McNeil (Peter Vack)? Well, since it throws all of these elements together, and attempts to connect them through a series of unnecessary and ultimately annoying animated transitions (meant to be an acknowledgement of Holmstrom's skills as a cartoonist), the answer is: who knows?
Early on, the film depicts Kristal as a man born with an unrelenting rebellious streak; seen when, as a small child, Hilly climbs from his crib in the middle of the night to run wild down the road from the chicken farm he grew up on. Somehow, this is supposed to be enough of an indication of who he was that, as a curly-haired, financially irresponsible adult with a permanent sour look on his face and a paunch that's discernible beneath several layers of beat-up sweaters and mismatched shirts, we don't need to know anything more about him. Kristal keeps his cash in the freezer, rather than the bank, and despite being seemingly flush with it at times, he's always late on the rent or is opening his club without beer or booze. The twice-bankrupt Kristal refuses to turn visitors into paying customers and would rather argue with his daughter Lisa (Ashley Greene) about managing his business with an ounce of business acumen than actually run his business with an ounce of business acumen. All of this hints at a rather interesting fellow behind what seems to be an unplanned, but monumental success, but Miller and Savin don't seem interested in examining what makes him tick beyond depicting him as frustratingly enigmatic and, apparently, really, really big on being neighborly.
Instead, 'CBGB' is more concerned with parading around a group of famous people playing other famous people, in what amounts to a rather disingenuous display of manufactured importance that's further undermined by the fact that all the actors are lip-synching the songs that helped make these performers noteworthy in the first place. Miller brings in plenty of familiar – and not so familiar – faces to portray musicians like Malin Akerman as Debbie Harry, Taylor Hawkins as Iggy Pop, and Joel David Moore as Joey Ramone. What role do any of these individuals play in the significance of punk and the enduring legacy of the club? Again, since the movie doesn't show us anything but a crisp, overly slick reproduction of the musicians' performances, the answer is: who knows? There is a fun moment when Rupert Grint comes face-to-face with his 'Harry Potter' co-star, but it's tied to a discussion of Kristal's failed attempt to manage The Dead Boys that mostly feels like it was shoehorned in for the specific purpose of such a pop-culture reunion. Artificiality, thy name is 'CBGB.'
And yet that sort of thing is pretty much par for the course for a film whose idea of capturing the inherent edginess and rambunctious expression of a significant moment in music history is frequently referencing a legendarily toxic bathroom, or depicting a dog constantly defecating on the club's floor. There's a common thread in both these examples, can you guess what that thread says about the film as a whole?
'CBGB' displays a blatant obsequiousness to the talent that came through the club's doors and that aspect leads to the overwhelming sense that everything being depicted has been whitewashed for palatability. For no reason whatsoever – other than his enduring popularity and commodity as a punk icon – Miller depicts Iggy Pop as a CBGB mainstay, despite his never having performed there – a fact the film flippantly notes in the end credits by saying in a mock punk affectation: "And we know Iggy Pop never performed at CBGB. Deal with it!” Meanwhile, people who might've played an actual role in the club's storied history (Kristal's ex-wife Karen and son Dana, e.g.) are nowhere to be found – though the contentious family feud that erupted following Hilly's death in 2007 likely has something to do with that, but even that's not mentioned.
All of this leads to the feeling that 'CBGB' is more interested in marketing a brand, than in telling a story about interesting, artistic, and often-times flawed people and the movement they helped launch. Late in the film, we are greeted by what looks like a 12-year-old boy (actually, it's actor Keene McRae), who is supposed to be Sting performing the opening to The Police's hit song 'Roxanne.' Hilly looks on with mild enthusiasm and utters his oft-repeated phrase of "There's something there." That's one of few lines in the movie that doesn't actually feel completely false. Yes, there is something there, and in its 103 minutes, 'CBGB' failed to capture any of it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'CBGB' comes from Xlrator Media as a single 25GB Blu-ray disc in the standard keep case. The disc will play a handful of previews before heading to the top menu, but they can be skipped if you so wish. The top menu itself is basic, but cleverly designed in an attempt to feel somewhat related to the source material. The disc itself includes a commentary by the filmmakers and some deleted scenes/outtakes, but sadly nothing affording more insight into Hilly Kristal or CBGB.
'CBGB' has been given a nice looking 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 encoded transfer that alternates between some superfluously grainy New York City footage that's intended to give the film a more authentic 1970s feel (at least that's the best guess I could come up with) and a more standard high-definition image that is so clean it sometimes borders on antiseptic. Still, that image affords the movie a great deal of fine detail, which is denoted in things like actors' facial features, facial hair, texture in clothing and detailed background elements. Additionally, the image manages to display high levels of contrast, which provide deep black levels that saturate the picture without overwhelming it or bleeding into the fine detail. There's a nice level of shadow delineation, too, that plays well in the scenes where the club is lit only from the stage, casting shadows on the many onlookers and fans.
Color levels are quite nice here, as neon signs and clothing play a big part in the overall look of the film. Most of the time colors are bright and vivid without being overdone, and they tend to look even throughout the film. Complexions are nicely handled as well, though there are times when the lighting of a scene is staged in such a way the whole thing looks a bit like a daytime soap opera, and that does occasionally produce a weird look on the actors' faces.
Overall, this is a nice image that shows a great amount of detail, but can be distracting due to some of the choices made while filming. There's nothing wrong with the image per se, but the effort to make the picture look spotless wound up making the film feel sterile.
The Blu-ray has been given a very nice DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track that utilizes the sound field at its disposal to deliver great sounding audio that's as attuned to the musical elements as it is to the actors' dialogue. There are times when the mix feels like it should be more hectic or chaotic sounding – as when large crowds begin to coalesce around the club's front doors, or when it's standing room only and a band is on stage – but for the most part the sound manages to be pretty robust when its necessary.
All of the songs are pre-existing recordings done by the original artists, so there's nothing new to hear in any of them, but for fans of Patti Smith, Talking Heads, or Blondie, the songs typically sound terrific. There's a nice extension to nearly every channel on most of the performances; they are typically front loaded, but tend to bleed into the rear channels and to use some LFE to a suitable purpose. Dialogue is much the same: it typically comes through the center channel speaker, but when necessary, it will emanate from the rear channels or even the fronts to allow for some imaging.
For the most part, the mix here is pulling double duty, but since it's using pre-recorded tracks, it's not hard to imaging the audio here sounding good.
There's certainly a good movie about Hilly Kristal and the story of CBGB floating out there somewhere, and while Miller's 'CBGB' certainly gets points for being enthusiastic about having a fun time while skimming the surface of that story, it gets too wrapped up in paying lip service to all the talent that came through the club's doors during its heyday. Most of that talent is only given the same cursory glance, however, as none of the musical acts actually become characters in the film, and the songs they perform are all hits that have been heard millions of times before. If the film had been more focused on what it was actually about (i.e., Hilly Kristal, CBGB, punk music) it might've been able to deliver the kind of entertaining experience it was clearly going for. The end result, however, is an external glance at a much deeper story. The disc has a nice image and good sound, which should please music lovers. The movie's not great, but if you're curious this one might be worth a rental.