In the 1970s, New York's legendary CBGB club was a crowded petri dish for the rock contagion labeled punk. But Randall Miller's movie glorifying this musical movement and the shaggy gatekeeper behind it — unfazed club owner Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman) — is a crass, jokey nostalgia piece, as if punk had been co-opted by K-Tel.
For starters, who's the audience for "CBGB"? If it's the uninitiated, then the aggressive use of comic graphics and comics-panel framing and labeling — oh, so that's Debbie Harry (Malin Akerman) and the Ramones, playing their incredibly identifiable songs! — reads as patronizing and needlessly distracting. (Then there's the expository dialogue: "Damn it, you're the father of underground rock!") If aimed at rock aficionados, then the greatest-hits-style, montage-laden treatment of the bands' mythic postures — Harry flirted, Patti Smith cursed, the Ramones (led by Joel David Moore as Joey) fought — feels more like vaudeville than an evocation of something raw, potent and historically original.
There's fun in Rickman's portrayal of Kristal, a stoic, sonorous father figure for the untamed, unusual, and — in the case of the band he tried to cash in on, the self-destructive Dead Boys (with Rupert Grint as Cheetah Chrome) — unmanageable. But in its stylistically flailing stab at authenticity, "CBGB" ends up merely a mess of caricatures.
"CBGB." MPAA rating: R for language throughout, some sexual content, drug use, and a scene of violence. Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes. At ArcLight Hollywood. Expands Oct. 11 to Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills; and Pasadena Playhouse 7.
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