Rating: R (language throughout, some sexual content, drug use, and a scene of violence)
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: October 11, 2013
Directed by: Randall Miller
Stars: 3 out of 5
In 1973, in a seedy part of Manhattan, Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman) began a small club at 315 Bowery. It was meant to be a blues, bluegrass, and country club, which is how it was given the name CBGB, but nobody really came to see those genres being played there. Instead, a few new bands playing hardcore rock music began to audition for gigs at the club, leading Hilly to change the focus of the club to a genre that would eventually become known as punk. The story of how some very famous acts came to turn the little club into a music legend is the focus of “CBGB.”
Hilly’s exasperated daughter, Lisa (Ashley Greene), offers to do the books for her dad, whose trouble with money is so great that he has twice declared bankruptcy. They argue and fuss over the details, but Hilly won’t relent, because he senses something special from the moment a then-unknown band named Television auditions for a gig on his stage. He sees the potential and begins hiring staff with money he really doesn’t have in order to capitalize on the musical lightning that he just caught in a bottle.
Soon, more unknown bands beagin auditioning for him, including punk outfit the Ramones, the Police, and Patti Smith. Malin Akerman even makes a memorable appearance as Debbie Harry of Blondie, looking every bit the blonde bombshell. The club gave all of these now-popular acts a voice that they may not have otherwise gotten in the stuffy musical scene, which was focused almost solely on disco music at the time. It’s a true account of what it took to create a landmark establishment that would help change the New York music scene forever.
Much ink has been used writing about the legendary CBGB club, because it helped birth the punk movement in New York City , and hence the entire country. The film even implies that it was there at CBGB that the word “punk” was invented to describe the genre that was taking root there. Whether that is true or not, points like this that are brought up throughout the film will make the audience ponder. Those same audience members, even if they weren’t born during CBGB’s ascendance, will learn quite a bit from the film and enjoy it. They will have to ignore the skewed timeline, however, as certain songs that appear in the film were actually not released until years later. This seems to be a bit of a creative choice that director Randall Miller made in order to help “CBGB” appeal to a wider audience. By using songs like Patti Smith’s “Because the Night,” arguably her biggest hit ever, Miller can draw in more people who might not have otherwise seen the film.
Timeline breaks aside, the film overall is funny and even charming in some parts, thanks in large part to lead actor Rickman. A proper English gentleman like Rickman seems a funny choice to play Hilly at first, but he morphs into character with a fantastic New York accent, his trademark deep voice making every maniacal thing that comes out of Hilly’s mouth seem booming or hilarious. He plays Hilly as a bit of a morose man who is well aware of the fact that many view him as a sad sack because of his divorces and previous bankruptcy filings. Somehow, he still comes across as likeable thanks to Rickman, and he seems downright loveable in his scenes with onscreen daughter Greene. Though Rickman and Greene spend most of the film arguing with each other over finances and the future of the club, they obviously love and care for each other. The chemistry between the two actors is very convincing, making the audience feel that this is a fractured, dysfunctional family that argues because they care, not merely to nag.
The film has a ton of cameos, mainly because the musicians who became famous under CBGB’s famous awning are now too old to portray themselves as they were in the 1970s. Though Debbie Harry is still alive, Akerman had to be hired to play her because she is younger. Arguably the best of the cameos besides Akerman’s is Joel David Moore as Joey Ramone, the lead singer of the Ramones. The cameos add a lot of fun to a film that is already fun to watch, even for those who know the eventual fate of the club. Sure, viewers can watch a few programs and documentaries about the building at 315 Bowery in Manhattan, but “CBGB” gives some much-needed humanity to the story.
Watch trailer here!