CBGB, a dramatized history of the famed punk club and its founder, Hilly Kristal, ends with real footage of the Talking Heads thanking Kristal while getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “He kept us alive,” says the band’s bassist, Tina Weymouth, after bringing Kristal on stage. “He fed us and he supported us in every way possible. He told us that we need to expand our sound and he taught us a lot about ethics, about how to treat people.” A sense of that camaraderie between Kristal and the Talking Heads, or any of the other bands that played at his club, is unfortunately missing entirely from Randall Miller’s film. As played by Alan Rickman, Kristal is a joyless man who stumbles into punk fame through luck and indifference rather than passion, and whose relationship to musicians is mostly business-oriented. Which is all likely based in truth, but if there’s more to the man, you wouldn’t know it from this rather perfunctory account of the New York punk scene.
The laziness of the film’s approach begins with its loose handling of facts. Patti Smith is shown performing “Because the Night,” a song she recorded for her 1978 album Easter, just prior to a scene where Kristal and his loyal bartender/partner, Merv Ferguson (Donal Logue), read the famous New York Daily News headline, “Ford to City: Drop Dead,” from October 30, 1975. True, CBGB doesn’t present itself as a film all too concerned with avoiding historical gaffes. One of the opening title cards states, “This story is mostly true,” and the film is certainly more concerned with capturing the feel and importance of CBGB and punk than depicting it with total veracity. A similar irreverence is present in Miller’s style as well, particularly his repeated decision to present images as if they were frames in a comic book, replete with speech bubbles and exclamations like “kerblam” when Kristal and two friends send a piano crashing down the stairs during a brief money-making venture as movers. But the film never convinces us that we’re getting anywhere close to a complete portrayal of either Kristal or the punk scene he helped create, no matter whether we define “complete” as a matter of spirit or detailed accuracy. And it’s this cursory quality that makes it hard to just look past the film’s glaring factual lapses, particularly when the most basic research could have prevented them.
As the film moves from one musical performance to another, the result increasingly feels like a series of celebrity impersonations set to a best-of-punk compilation album. Brief conversations between Punk Magazine founder and illustrator John Holmstrom (Josh Zuckerman) and writer-filmmaker Mary Harron (Ahna O’Reilly) are meant to give a sense of what punk stood for (“The disavowing of politics in and of itself, it is political”), but they are elemental at best. As a biopic, meanwhile, the film reveals little about Kristal as a person while listlessly hitting the common beats of the genre. The final result is a film whose blandness, like that of the recent Parkland, comes from how it wanders through an abundantly explored historical moment without providing new knowledge about it. The best that can be said about CBGB is that it allows the music to speak for itself throughout, though that also means you’re likely to learn as much about punk from the soundtrack as you are from the movie.