‘CBGB’ turns punk history into cartoon

A Trumbull County native is a central character in a new movie that probably never will play in Trumbull County.

That might not be a bad thing.

“CBGB” tells the story of the legendary New York club that was ground zero for the ’70s punk/new wave movement. The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and Television are just a few of the bands that got their start there.

Another one of those bands was The Dead Boys, led by Girard native Stephen Bator, whose stage name was Stiv Bators. The Dead Boys released a couple albums on Sire Records in the late ’70s but never achieved the commercial success of some of their CBGB cohorts. Bators went on to form the band Lords of the New Church and died in 1990 after he was struck by a car while walking in Paris.

Bators is played by Justin Bartha (“The Hangover”) and bandmate Cheetah Chrome is played by Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley from the “Harry Potter” films). The Dead Boys end up being more than a footnote in the movie because club owner Hilly Kristal decided to manage the band.

At best, The Dead Boys come off as adorable screw-ups in Randall Miller’s film. At worst they are Kristal’s folly, and his misguided confidence in the band’s commercial potential nearly costs him the club.

Bartha seemed wrong physically for the role initially. However, while I never saw the Dead Boys live, Bartha does a credible job of recreating Bators’ on stage contortions as captured in photographs and old video footage. The movie also uses the original recordings for the Dead Boys and the other bands portrayed.

The problem isn’t the music, but everything around it.

The history of the club is played is as a quirky comedy with Kristal (Alan Rickman) as a bumbling businessman who makes history almost in spite of himself. There’s a homeless junkie (Freddy Rodriguez) who’s played mostly for laughs, a dog that craps everywhere, a stereotypical record label executive (Bradley Whitford) and lots of familiar faces playing music luminaries – Malin Akerman as Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Stana Katic (“Castle”) as Genya Raven, Kyle Gallner as Lou Reed, Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins as Iggy Pop, etc.

The movie also has comic book style graphics that seem odd until it becomes clear that “CBGB” also wants to tell the story of Punk magazine, a comic-book / underground-Rolling-Stone fusion started by John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil that chronicled the music scene.

The movie, co-written by Miller and Jody Savin, assumes its audience has some knowledge about the period, which doesn’t make it as accessible as it could be for younger audiences (16 year olds who wear Ramones T-shirts as a fashion statement will be lost). In turn those who know and love the era and the music may be turned off by the more cartoonish elements of the storytelling.

The scenes I liked best – watching the Ramones bicker amongst themselves, hearing Talking Heads play “Psycho Killer” in their audition for Kristal – had more to do with my feelings about the bands than with any insight provided by the movie.

After playing as an On Demand exclusive for DirecTV customers, “CBGB” opens on the coasts on Friday.

Cleveland Cinemas will bring it to the Capitol Theatre on the city’s west side for one show at 7 p.m. Oct. 17. If the movie somehow clicks with audiences in major markets, it may get a wider theatrical release. That seems unlikely.

The Capitol screening likely will be the only chance to see it before it arrives on Blu-ray/DVD, tentatively set for Dec. 31.

Andy Gray is the entertainment writer for the Tribune Chronicle. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com