MUSIC DRAMA

‘CBGB’: The punk rock scene was never this dull | 1 star

Updated: 2013-10-23T21:13:26Z

By A.O. SCOTT

The New York Times

Because of the cruel accidents of age and geography, I never set foot in CBGB during its 1970s punk heyday. So I can’t look at “CBGB” — Randall Miller’s sweet and nostalgic elegy to that defunct club and its owner and presiding spirit, Hillel Kristal, known to all, whether they actually knew him or not, as Hilly — and say, with the authority of experience, “It wasn’t like that.”

I will leave it to others to point out the film’s lapses of chronology, taste and historical detail. But on the other hand, I would swear on a stack of Dead Boys T-shirts and a first pressing of Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ “Blank Generation” that it could not possibly have been like that: so silly, so trivial, so boring.

“CBGB” is less a piece of cultural history, music criticism or even fannish hagiography than a theme-park attraction, Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree with the likes of Tom Verlaine, Patti Smith, Joey Ramone and Deborah Harry in lieu of bears. These and other stars of the New York punk scene are played by actors who jump around and lip sync over familiar studio versions of well-known songs.

It was probably fun for Malin Akerman to pretend to sing for Blondie and for Joel David Moore to do the same for the Ramones, but it is not much fun to watch them do it. The alternative would have been worse, of course — no one wants to hear bad new renditions of great old tunes — but the impersonations fall into the uncanny valley between comedy-sketch parody and cover-band homage.

The musicians are not really at the center of the movie, with the partial exception of the Dead Boys, a self-destructive Cleveland group that Kristal insisted on managing. (The Boys’ lead singer, Stiv Bators, is played by Justin Bartha, with his mates Cheetah Chrome and Johnny Blitz played by Rupert Grint and Bronson Adams.) The inscrutable, stubborn, shaggy-haired Hilly is the hero, and Alan Rickman plays him as a nice Jewish boy from a New Jersey chicken farm floating through the filthy streets of a pre-gentrified East Village.

In the wake of a divorce and a bankruptcy (his second), Hilly buys a Bowery dive (with money borrowed from his mother, played by Estelle Harris) and names it for the music he has a hunch will be the next big thing: country, bluegrass and blues. Though that intuition doesn’t pan out, his nose for talent — or at least his timing — proves formidable. Scruffy, skinny guys shuffle in for auditions with their instrument cases and turn out to be future legends.

Hilly’s lax approach to finance and hygiene provides what humor and drama “CBGB” can manage. He alienates his daughter Lisa (Ashley Greene), who works as the club’s bookkeeper; his old pal Merv Ferguson (Donal Logue), who keeps the place running; and Taxi (Richard de Klerk), the long-suffering sound engineer. They all forgive him of course, and tolerate his dog, Jonathan, whose frequent deposits on the club floor are a running gag, as are the antics of the club’s human mascot, an addict known as Idaho (Freddy Rodriguez).

There is no story to speak of, just a series of anecdotes that gain very little when acted out on screen. Commentary on the meaning of punk is provided by John Holmstrom (Josh Zuckerman) and Legs McNeil (Peter Vack), founders of the seminal fanzine Punk, and Mary Harron (Ahna O’Reilly), a frequent contributor and a CBGB regular. And also, come to think of it, a future filmmaker (director of “I Shot Andy Warhol,” “American Psycho,” “The Notorious Bettie Page” and others) whose version of the CBGB story would no doubt have been far more insightful and interesting than this one.

(At the Screenland Armour.)

| A.O. Scott, The New York Times

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