Seven years ago this week, Manhattan’s legendary rock club CBGB closed, initiating its afterlife as a limp, cool-cred symbol imprinted onto shopping mall T-shirts. Director Randall Miller’s hyperactive valentine to unwitting punk steward Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman) watches as the twice-bankrupted club owner whose country & western shingle on the Bowery becomes an unlikely mecca for raw local rockers, showcasing bands like Television, the Talking Heads and the Ramones, while retaining its singularly seedy, bathroom-befouled character. The film strives to cinematically reanimate that shabby underground lair; instead, it proves to be the most bastardized souvenir bauble of all.
While true to a certain prankster spirit of the movement, Miller’s decision to frame the narrative in the style of scenester-cartoonist John Holmstrom’s Punk Magazine proves catastrophic, with punchy pop-up thought balloons simultaneously overinflating and pissing away every moment. Bad accents and school-play–grade cameos abound, from Malin Akerman’s alarmingly slutty Debbie Harry to Bradley Whitford’s requisite coke fiend record exec. Each band is introduced as if it’s a blackguard Christ headed for Jerusalem, with the camera pushing in on Rickman’s “show me what you got” mug for the reveal that, lo, “Psycho Killer” was about to change the world. Mythologizing by way of whip-pans and slapstick spit-takes, CBGB just might be the CBGB that we deserve.
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