Authentic recreations of any particular music movement are always a potential minefield, but capturing the counter-culture allure of punk rock is especially difficult. The claws have been out for CBGB almost since the day it was first announced, mostly from punk veterans who remember the famous New York night club as ground zero, giving rise to rock legends like The Ramones, Debbie Harry, Television, and Iggy Pop. And while there may be a few twinges of nostalgia for those who grew up during the punk boom of the 1970s and '80s, there's very little rockin' goin' on at the CBGB, and those unfamiliar with it will wonder what the fuss is all about.
The film's biggest draw and glaring curse has been the random cast assembled to play celebrated musical icons, like Rupert Grint and Justin Bartha sporting dog collars as members of The Dead Boys; Malin Akerman as Debbie Harry, and lanky Avatar geek Joel David Moore as Joey Ramone. With the exception of Akerman, who nails Harry's magnetism and energy perfectly, the rest come off as pale caricatures, like they were attendees at a retro costume party. It doesn't help that writer/director Randall Miller (of the wine-tasting comedy Bottle Shock) can't seem to figure out a way to make them seem important, and it's a problem that carries over to the supposed mythology surrounding the club itself.
Alan Rickman plays shaggy dog club owner Hilly Kristal, whose piss-poor management skills have led him to bankruptcy numerous times. Now giving the nightclub racket another shot with the CBGB, he initially pegs it as a country, bluegrass, and blues joint (hence the name), but finds something new and aggressive in the burgeoning punk rock scene. So while the club remained a rundown hovel with a hideously disgusting bathroom, and a dog that frequently did his business anywhere he pleased, it also drew the hottest acts and became a cultural touchstone. Unfortunately we don't experience any of that until much too late, instead spending a meandering hour watching Hilly do things we don't really care about. He spars with his daughter (Ashley Greene) over billing; taste tests the club's supposedly famous chili; and tests out their shoddy sound system. Other than those who were there to experience the minutiae of CBGB's slow rise to prominence, it's hard to imagine who would find interest in any of this. The barest resemblance of an actual storyline emerges as Hilly takes over managing the ill-fated 'Dead Boys', who not only drive him into bankruptcy but proceed to self-destruct spectacularly. It's a tantalizing tease for what a biopic on The Dead Boys could be if given proper room to breathe, and not just played like the B-side on a warped record.
Overall, there's something shabby and inauthentic about CBGB, a shoddiness that goes beyond the club's crumbling decor. Portions of the film were shot in New York, but a large chunk of it took place in Savannah, GA and unfortunately you can tell. The soundtrack is spectacular, even if some of the lip-syncing actors are less so. It was still the wisest course of action to best capture the texture and sound of the era. If it were only about the music CBGB would be a hit, but as a film it can't do the world famous nightclub the justice it deserves.