Quick, what’s the ideal song for a movie about CBGB to play over its opening credits? Anyone whose answer is “Life During Wartime,” the Talking Heads classic that actually mentions CBGB (along with The Mudd Club) right in the lyrics, congratulations—you’re unimaginative enough to have made this thuddingly banal portrait of Hilly Kristal and the legendary New York club he ran in the Bowery, from which punk rock largely originated in the 1970s. It’s a movie that concludes with helpful “where are they now?” information about such obscure bands as Blondie, Talking Heads, and The Ramones (spoiler: They all went on to achieve considerable fame and fortune), yet doesn’t think anybody really needs to know that CBGB no longer exists, having been shut down in 2006 over a rent dispute. Which is doubly ironic, because the movie’s best stab at a narrative engine involves Kristal’s chronic inability to manage his finances.
As played by Alan Rickman, who struggles to maintain an American accent, Kristal comes across as a mopey burnout with just enough ambition to begin ventures but not quite enough energy to keep them solvent. Skipping the first four decades of his life entirely, CBGB kicks off at the point where he opens the club, giving it a name intended to signify the kind of music he’d be showcasing: Country, BlueGrass, and Blues. Instead, Kristal soon found himself running the world’s premier punk incubator, and eventually wound up signing on as manager for The Dead Boys, a band that, unfortunately for him, was more influential than successful. (In the movie’s weirdest bit of casting, Cheetah Chrome is played by Rupert “Ron Weasley” Grint.) Through it all, he struggled to keep the club going, giving away so many free drinks that he was usually months behind with the rent even though the place was consistently jam-packed.
Since not paying bills isn’t the most visually dynamic activity ever conceived and Rickman pounds a single sour note for the entire picture, CBGB struggles to provide some energy by intermittently turning sequences into comic-strip panels (complete with cutesy thought balloons). The device was inspired by comics featured in Punk magazine—and the movie includes John Holmstrom, Legs McNeil, and Mary Harron as minor characters—but it still feels distractingly irrelevant, even desperate. So do all the dog-poop jokes, as well as Freddy Rodriguez’s typically over-the-top turn as a friendly junkie. The only real draw here is the music, and director Randall Miller (whose best-known previous film is arguably 1995’s Houseguest, starring Phil Hartman and Sinbad) can’t even be bothered to make that exciting, simply having look-alikes, including Malin Akerman as Debbie Harry, stand onstage and lip-sync to the album versions of every song. At the end of the movie, when The Police audition for Kristal by playing “Roxanne,” the movie hilariously attempts to disguise this blatant subterfuge by editing Sting’s little “hahaha” out of the opening bars, which only makes it worse. Punk may not be dead, but this picture is D.O.A.