Long before punk was just another marketing subcategory, it was a musical genre played in grimy, dangerous clubs by unschooled bands relying on anger, energy, and, occasionally, raw talent. The scene flourished on both coasts, in Southern California at venues like The Masque and The Starwood in the early ’80s and in New York at venues like Max’s Kansas City. The mother of all these clubs was CBGB, which finally closed in 2006 after 33 years. Now, it’s the subject of a movie, CBGB, that delves into the venue’s early years. The film gets a lot wrong—that’s the nature of parsing a sprawling, messy subculture and attempting to shoehorn it into the narrative conventions of Hollywood cinema—but it also displays a genuine appreciation and affection for its subject. For those who have only heard or read about the era, CBGB is a fun primer on New York’s early punk scene; just don’t expect historical authenticity.
In 1973, Hilly Kristal opened CBGB OMFUG (Country, Blue Grass Blues | Other Music For Uplifting Gormandizers), a dingy watering hole in the Bowery. His basic rule was that as long as you played original material, you were good to go, but according to the film, it was Television that got the initial crowds to show up. For bands like The Ramones, Blondie, and Talking Heads, it was a launching pad. For the emerging American punk music scene, it was a groundbreaking venue that showcased bands that refused to conform to the rules of rock and roll. The Ramones were notorious for fighting among themselves while on stage and sometimes walking off mid-set. CBGB’s was the kind of place where everything went.
Kristal was the grand curator of the scene, and he’s the nexus around which the movie spins. In CBGB, which opened this past Friday in select cities and goes into wide release on October 11, the stoic and stubborn visionary is played by Alan Rickman. (Many people who knew Kristal have commented on Rickman’s eerie likeness to him.) Blondie, Talking Heads, The Dead Boys, The Ramones, Television, Patti Smith (played in the movie by Mickey Sumner, Sting’s daughter), and The Police all make appearances thanks to an impressive if unlikely all-star cast. Harry Potter star Rupert Grint plays guitarist Cheetah Chrome of The Dead Boys, a band that was infamous for its nutty stage antics. Donal Logue, Ashley Greene, Johnny Galecki, and Freddy Rodriguez also make appearances. The casting brings the movie to life and makes the experience of watching it sort of like a celeb version of “Where’s Waldo?” In one scene, Iggy Pop (played by Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters) duets with Blondie (Malin Ackerman) on a rendition of The Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” You were expecting rigorous historical accuracy? A disclaimer in the end credits declares, “And we know Iggy Pop never performed at CBGB. Deal with it!” How punk rock is that?
You’ll find a bunch of bands that never graced the CBGB stage—MC5, New York Dolls, Velvet Underground—and a few who did but weren’t included in the 100-minute movie on the soundtrack. It features 20 tracks including the awesome “Psychotic Reaction” by Northern California garage band The Count Five.
In 2005, a dispute with the landlord regarding $91,000 in back rent led to the club’s closure. Two years later, Kristal passed away from complications of lung cancer. CBGB is gone but CBGB commemorates 315 Bowery, which will forever be known as the place where a gaggle of musical misfits became rock stars.