CBGB: The Rise of Punk in a No-Holds-Barred Party
This ain’t no Mudd Club, but it is CBGB.
The legendary New York music club referenced in a song by the Talking Heads is now the subject of a feature film, opening today, and titled, appropriately enough, CBGB.
Directed by Randall Miller, the often-funny film captures a time and place in which a New Wave of music for a disillusioned decade swept over an eager audience. With a large ensemble cast led by Alan Rickman as eccentric club owner Hilly Kristal, the movie portrays the passion, innovation, and diversity — including the occasional gay element — of the downtown New York punk scene in the 1970s.
Kristal was an unlikely impresario, and CBGB was an unlikely success. He’d gone through two bankruptcies and a contentious divorce by the time he opened the club in 1973 in a run-down section of lower Manhattan. He was a poor businessman who tended to waive cover charges and give away drinks, especially to the bikers who provided a sort of security service, and he often didn’t pay his bills. His primary source of financing was his mother.
CBGB’s neighborhood was rather dicey — on any given day, there might be someone passed out or even dead just outside the front door — but inside the club in its early years, the environment was pretty dodgy as well, at least according to the film. The primary food offering, “Hilly’s Chili,” might be seasoned with cigarette ashes or bodily fluids courtesy of the cook, who also kept a pet rat. Giant cockroaches infested the space too. The restrooms were a public health hazard, and Hilly’s beloved dog, Jonathan, left droppings anywhere and everywhere, including on the stage. The wiring could get a performer electrocuted.
But what drew the crowds to CBGB and kept them coming back was the music — the chance to hear up-and-coming acts like the Ramones, Patti Smith, Blondie, and yes, Talking Heads perform hard-rocking, rebellious, sometimes angry songs that constituted a distinct and, for many listeners, welcome alternative to mainstream pop.
And Kristal, despite his unconventional business practices, had a kind heart and an eye for talent. He originally planned to present country, bluegrass, and blues, hence the “CBGB” name. When that didn’t work out, he was happy to offer a platform for the innovative sounds of punk and New Wave. He eventually added “OMFUG,” standing for “Other Music for Uplifting Gourmandizers,” to the club’s signage.
While Rickman’s Kristal is at the center of the film, CBGB is very much an ensemble effort. The movie portrays many other denizens of the club, with a cast including Donal Logue as Kristal’s likable business partner, Merv Ferguson; Richard De Klerk as Taxi, the none-too-skillful electrician who handled the sound system; Freddy Rodriguez as Idaho, the rat-keeping cook, a composite of several homeless men to whom Kristal gave jobs; Ashley Greene as Kristal’s daughter and club manager Lisa, whose business acumen kept her father from financial ruin; and Johnny Galecki as Terry Ork, manager of the band Television, which featured punk legend Richard Hell (Evan Alex Cole).
Ork happened to be gay; audiences are clued in to this when he casually offers oral sex to Iggy Pop (Taylor Hawkins). The film depicts CBGB, and the punk scene in general, as an anything-goes pansexual paradise, but did the laissez-faire attitude apply to Ork as well? Big Bang Theory star Galecki says he didn’t do much research on Ork’s sexuality, as it didn’t seem that important to the story. What did stand out to him about Ork, who died in 2004, was the man’s devotion to his musicians and their work. “I loved his passion for these artists,” Galecki says.
Indeed, more than anything, CBGB is about the music. The cast is full of capable young actors portraying the performers who graced the club’s stage in the ’70s, among them Malin Akerman as Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Mickey Sumner (daughter of Sting) as Patti Smith, Joel David Moore as Joey Ramone, and Rupert Grint, wearing a dog collar as Cheetah Chrome of the Dead Boys, a self-destructive band Kristal thought he could mold into the next big thing. The soundtrack, meanwhile, offers a smorgasbord of songs by the original artists.
Jody Savan, who wrote the screenplay with husband Miller, admits they made some dramatic and musical choices that weren’t “chronologically accurate,” but they went for what best conveyed the feeling of being at CBGB in the early to mid-’70s. They used Smith’s “Because the Night,” for instance, because it was about the downtown scene. And she did introduce it at CBGB, but not until 1977. Among the many other iconic songs featured in the film are Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” and “Life During Wartime,” the latter of which features the CBGB reference; Blondie’s “Denis”; and Joey Ramone’s “I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Back Up).”
Likewise, some of the actors playing famous musicians say they weren’t trying to impersonate them precisely but instead set out to offer a more emotional experience. “What we tried to do was create the essence of the Ramones,” says Moore.
The filmmakers, though, made plenty of effort to get the big things right, going so far as to reconstruct the club’s interior using original pieces of the bar and other fixtures — even the actual toilets — that had been kept in storage since CBGB closed in 2006. (The site now houses an upscale menswear store.) Some exteriors were shot in New York, but most of the filming was done in Savannah, Ga., where several storefronts were made over to look like the street where CBGB stood, as it appeared in the 1970s.
Among those consulting on the film to ensure authenticity were Punk magazine founder John Holmstrom, who also appears as a character in CBGB, played by Josh Zuckerman. The real Holmstrom contributed some original artwork to the movie, and he expresses satisfaction with the overall project. “I think it’s a very accurate reflection of what the club was like,” he says.
Hilly Kristal died in 2007, but his daughter Lisa, now a lawyer, had a great deal of input on the film. And as played by Greene, she’s a significant character in the movie, one of several strong women on the scene; one of the refreshing things about CBGB, especially compared to other movies about the music business, is that the women aren’t there to be groupies or girlfriends but to pursue their own careers and passions. Besides Lisa Kristal and the various female musicians, the gutsy real-life women portrayed in the film include music producer Genya Ravan (Stana Katic), journalist (and later filmmaker) Mary Harron (Anna O’Reilly), and Hilly’s supportive but no-nonsense mother, Bertha Kristal (Estelle Harris of Seinfeld fame).
All in all, the movie’s an enjoyable ride to a back to a time when a new kind of music flourished in a gritty concrete garden. Eventually that music won over the mainstream, but the early, outsider years appear to have been the most fun for all concerned. It wasn’t a disco, but it certainly was a party.
CBGB opens in general release today. Click through for more pictures from the production. All photos by Beau Giann.