Review: CBGB (2013)

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Cast: Alan Rickman, Malin Akerman, Justin Bartha
Director: Randall Miller
Country: USA
Genre: Drama | Music
Official Trailer: Here


Editor’s Note: CBGB is now open in limited release

“I always really liked Brigitte Bardot,” says the Patti Smith of CBGB with a shrug, aptly summing up in one subtle shoulder movement the entire tone of Randall Miller’s fictionalisation of the eponymous New York club and its owner, Hilly Kristal, who helped launch punk music in the ‘70s. “Those guys were pretty cool, I guess,” is what Miller seems to say at every turn, rapidly moving from icon to icon as he brings on a roster of young actors to portray the figureheads of this musical movement, in the process crafting a movie that’s less a faithful representation of a cultural moment as it is a filmed fancy dress party.

Why that aesthetic for this story is anyone’s guess; why that aesthetic for any story, in fact, is the better question…

cbgb_2013_3Expectedly inflected with the aggressive energy of punk, the film opens to the sound of screeching chords and a quick-fire queue of flashy scenes, before bizarrely channelling itself into a comic book-inspired look that continues through to the end credits. Why that aesthetic for this story is anyone’s guess; why that aesthetic for any story, in fact, is the better question: even Miller seems to tire of the panel-zoom transitions the more the film wanes on, his scenes growing longer and longer almost as though he were delaying the inevitable to save himself and us the sight of another selection of “ptooey!” word bubbles. Given the general rapidity of the narrative as a whistle-stop tour of iconic origin story moments, Miller’s maddening visual conceits are the most aggressively obnoxious aspect of his storytelling, though not—alas—the only.

If not the most egregious example of the absurd storytelling that permeates the movie, the efforts to cram in absolutely every punk act of even passing interest is the most exhausting, necessitating a long section in the centre of the film that’s little more than a montage of tribute acts. “This band, that band, these guys, those guy, the Ramones, the RAMONES,” CBGB seems to scream with all the restraint of a toddler let loose in a sweet shop. That it’s followed with an urgently shot sequence of characters running about the city slapping stickers announcing the arrival of punk must surely be a joke; the only viewers who can’t have caught the point of the preceding barrage of bits are those who’ve overdosed on embarrassing impressions.

It’s not unlike those moments in dull documentaries where talking heads are re-introduced for the benefit of those who find them too boring to recall, an apt indictment indeed of so many of CBGB’s supporting players.

cbgb_2013_4Such is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it brevity of many of the famous faces—or rather barely passable lookalike efforts—Miller crowbars into his movie that he deploys captions liberally just so you know for sure, going so far as to reintroduce acts when they’ve been off-screen for longer than a single scene. It’s not unlike those moments in dull documentaries where talking heads are re-introduced for the benefit of those who find them too boring to recall, an apt indictment indeed of so many of CBGB’s supporting players. Quite how the film manages to be so laboriously lifeless is a mystery, given the frenetic flow it favours; even tearing through its material as though there’s no tomorrow, it’s a film that seems insufferably slow.

That’s primarily, perhaps, because it seems to have so little to say. “Once upon a time there was this man, and he was rather important to punk,” is the single sentence setup that saves the entire running time of CBGB. Even with an entertainingly apathetic lead performance from the ever-reliable Alan Rickman, this is a film that feels phenomenally inert every step of the way. The ire it’s inspired is less for ineptitude than for inanity: how Miller could make so milquetoast a movie of such a rich, historically-interesting story if a mystery more engaging than the film could ever hope to be. With a story far less remarkable, and a soundtrack less star-studded, this year’s Irish indie hit Good Vibrations captured the infectious energy of the punk explosion. CBGB, by contrast, captures only its own implosion.

[notification type=”star”]42/100 ~ BAD. Even with an entertainingly apathetic lead performance from the ever-reliable Alan Rickman, CBGB is a film that feels phenomenally inert every step of the way.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.