CBGB is the Most Cringe-Inducing Musical Biopic

Jesse Locke revisits the flop on its tenth anniversary.

For the purposes of this article, I’ve now watched CBGB three times, which is definitely three times too many. When the cringe-inducing biopic about the mythologized Bowery punk bar first arrived in 2013, it was greeted with negative reviews from all corners, and currently sits at a paltry 7% on Rotten Tomatoes. Ten years later, the movie has aged like moldy cheese, thanks to its grotesque caricatures from Rupert Grint as the Dead Boys’ Cheetah Chrome, Malin Akerman as Debbie Harry, and the late Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins as Iggy Pop. In his starring role as CBGB founder Hilly Kristal, Alan Rickman barely tries to salvage a lackluster script, the grimaces on his face looking all too real. 

CBGB’s casting alone would be enough to secure a spot in the terrible music biopic hall of fame up there with Bohemian Rhapsody and What We Do Is Secretbut that’s the least of its worries. The film sets a gross tone with cartoonist John Holstrom (Josh Zuckerman, known for his roles in Sex Drive and Goldmember) being pestered by writer Legs McNeil (edgelord actor and director Peter Vack) while listening to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music. When Holstrom says he’s planning to launch a zine called Punk, McNeil creepily jokes about how it could be their response to 16: “We should totally go younger. 13? Get in on the newbie chicks?”

Following a brief scene of baby Hilly Kristal running away from his childhood chicken farm (he was always a rebel, get it?), we flash ahead to a weathered, deeply divorced adult going bankrupt for the second time. After two failed attempts at opening a bar, a judge suggests to Kristal, “Maybe you should try something else.” Slumming it in flannel shirts, overalls, and a shaggy goatee, Rickman sleepwalks through the movie, never showing any clear motivation why he’s so passionate about giving little guys a chance. According to the film’s credits, the spaced out, unhoused character hired by Kristal as a cook at CBGB was just “one of the many junkies Hilly put to work, often in the kitchen.” Yet once again, his intentions are murky. Was Kristal trying to help the disadvantaged, or just hiring people that he wouldn’t have to pay fairly?

When CBGB sets up a stage, the first band to roll in is Television, accompanied by their slick, overconfident manager Terry Ork (The Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki). Kristal gives Television a chance, as long as they only play “original music.” He talks a big game about replacing the dominant capitalist ideology with a renewed focus on art and music, but it’s really to avoid paying licensing fees. Talking Heads’ audition is no less baffling, with Kristal inviting a cop into the bar to hear them play “Psycho Killer” for some unexplained reason. “This is art! This is Rimbaud! This is the only sustenance life might ever give you, so eat up motherfuckers!” sounds like something Patti Smith might have said, but when she performs “Because The Night” (without Bruce Springsteen, years before the song was written), it’s hard not to feel like a pedantic fact-checker.

The film’s revisionist punk history doesn’t end there. Midway through a Blondie performance, the band are interrupted by Iggy Pop jumping on stage to ask the crowd, “Who wants some real music?” Blondie then immediately starts playing the Stooges song “I Wanna Be Your Dog” with Iggy and Debbie duetting. As the credits admit: “We know Iggy Pop never performed at CBGB. Deal with it!” Bopping ahead to the Ramones, the band’s cheap wigs and baggy jeans somehow look more period correct than another embarrassing adaptation from a Big Bang Theory actor. Yet the scene where Joey Ramone (Joel David Moore) interacts with Kristal’s mom Bertha (Estelle “Costanza” Harris) takes the cake:

Joey Ramone: “Word is, Stiv Bators jerks off in that chili.” 

Bertha Kristal: [shrug] “I’ve had worse in my mouth.”

In the end, nothing is as ridiculous as Rupert “Ron Weasley” Grint as Cheetah Chrome, sneering at the camera, sweating in a dog collar, and deep throating a bottle of Budweiser. His character’s abuse of producer Genya Ravan includes pulling down his pants to prove that red is his natural hair color, and arriving at the studio with swastikas on his amp. At least the Jewish character yells at him to remove the hateful symbols, but did she really need to invite the band for bagels afterwards?

With the recent Talking Heads reunion and the passings of Tom Verlaine and Taylor Hawkins, there’s no better/worse time to revisit this trainwreck. No one needs to celebrate CBGB’s 10th anniversary, unless they enjoy hate-watching movies so bad they’re hilarious. The cheesy comic book animations based on Holstrom’s illustrations for Punk don’t even need to be mentioned, but the last words they share on screen about Kristal’s dog shitting in the bar say it all — “Fact: Jonathan’s bowels were legendary.”

Jesse Locke is a writer and musician based in Vancouver. He is the co-founder of the record label We Are Time with NYC post-punk pre-teen Chandra Oppenheim, and the author of Heavy Metalloid Music, the biography of 1970s psych/proto-punk band Simply Saucer, published by Eternal Cavalier Press. Jesse currently writes for outlets including Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily, and CBC Music, and plays drums for bands such as Tough Age, Big Rig, and CHANDRA. Follow him on social media at @wipeoutbeat.