‘CBGB’ the Movie Brings Punk Rock to the Multiplex

Craig Rosen
Stop The Presses!

In a strange twist of fate, you can thank the legend of late Beach Boy Dennis Wilson for helping to bring CBGB the movie to the big screen.

Husband-and-wife filmmaking duo writer/director Randall Miller and writer/producer Jody Savin -- and partner producer/music supervisor Brad Rosenberger -- were working on a biopic on the Beach Boys drummer when the actor cast to portray Wilson bailed out, leaving the project dead in the water. "We said we got to make another movie now," Miller recalls. "We have this sort of energy going here."

Fortunately, the trio had another project on the backburner: The story of CBGB, the nightclub started by a two-time failed business man named Hilly Kristal in an attempt to bring country and other roots music to New York, hence the club's name (which stands for country, blues, and bluegrass). Kristal failed on that front, but he inadvertently became a founding father of the punk rock movement, as his club became an incubator of sorts for such now-legendary acts as the Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, and scores of others.

In the past, Miller and Savin had worked with Alan Rickman, best known for the role of Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series. He appeared in their 2008 film Bottle Shock as well as 2007's Nobel Son and through a bit of fortuitous timing, he was available to work with them again. "When the other actor dropped out of the [Dennis Wilson] movie, Alan signed on to CBGB, and we said, 'OK, let's go make this movie. We can do it on a shoestring and do it well.'"

It's Rickman who stars in the lead role as Kristal, a bumbling businessman with an ear and an eye for talent and an openness to new music. The acclaimed actor wasn't initially familiar with the story of Kristal or CBGB, but one of his famous friends had a history with the club. In the past, Rickman had done theater with Trudie Styler, whose husband, Sting, made his U.S. debut with The Police at CBGB.

"He told Alan this great story about how he had no money and he bought a cup of coffee at CBGBs, but he dropped it, and the lady behind the bar offered him another cup, but he said, 'I don't have any money.' And she said, 'Don't worry about it. This is America. We'll refill it for you for free.' From that day on he decided he loved CBGB and he loved America....When Alan heard that story, he realized this is a place that had incredible history to it," Miller says.

In bringing the story of CBGB to the screen, Miller and his crew worked tirelessly to recreate that history as accurately as possible, down to the club's legendary disgusting bathrooms. Since the Bowery has changed dramatically since GBGB's '70s heyday, they shot sparingly in New York, instead opting for -- of all places -- Savannah, Georgia, where they recreated the legendary club on a soundstage and shot some street scenes downtown.

"The challenges were that we wanted to the club to be really authentic," Miller says. "Fortunately, after we got our rights [for the movie], we formed a relationship with the people that bought the IP and the CBGB trademark, and they had a warehouse full of actual artifacts from the club. They had pieces of the wall, the bar, the doors; and they were really generous. They put it on a truck in a shipping container and sent it out to us -- so we had the bar, the front doors, part of the awning, even the toilets and urinals."

Since it was shot on a soundstage rather than an actual club, Miller and his crew were able to shoot behind the stage and the bar, which would be impossible to do in the tight confines of the actual club. But they still had the authenticity of the venue, with the front doors still held closed by bungee-cords, rather than a hydraulic system.

Helping to keep it real were several people who were actually there back in the day, including Dead Boys guitarist Cheeta Chrome, Blondie drummer Clem Burke, soundman Taxi, Punk magazine co-founder John Holmstrom, and others. All of those characters are portrayed in the film, with Holmstrom's illustrations bookending and serving as segues to the live action scenes.

Still, there were certain issues that were beyond the filmmakers' control. Rosenberger, who served as producer and music supervisor of the film and is also owner/partner of Omnivore Records, says that he was unable to obtain the rights to the Ramones recordings. "We showed their representative the film and the Johnny and Dee Dee side, for their own reasons, chose not to be a part of it." However, the people handling Joey Ramone's estate were more than helpful, offering tracks from his two solo albums instead.

The film's 20-track soundtrack, including some of the best-known cuts by the bands that played CBGB, some obscurities, and tracks by bands that influenced them -- such as the Velvet Underground, the MC5, and the Count Five -- is due Oct. 8 on Omnivore Records. That label will also release a double LP translucent pink vinyl, while Rhino Records will issue a deluxe digital version that same day.

In the film, there's also a scene in which Iggy Pop (played faithfully by the Foo Fighters' Taylor Hawkins), who often hung out at the club, jumps on stage in the middle of Blondie's set and end ends up dueting with Debbie Harry (played by Malin Akerman) on the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." In the end credits, the filmmakers admit that was a bit of fiction, created for dramatic purposes.

"It had more dramatic impact for him to be onstage rather than just being at the bar," Rosenberger says. "So once Jody wrote the scene that way, it clearly was a scene we liked and wanted to keep in there, but I said this is what we got to do. We got to have our tongue in our cheek, and show that it's a movie, and poke fun at ourselves, and have something in the credits that says, 'Hey, we know Iggy never played there, deal with it.'"

Elsewhere, as the "music guy," Rosenberger strived to make the movie as authentic as possible. At one point he walked in on a scene featuring the Dead Boys, with another Harry Potter series alum Rupert Grint acting as guitarist Cheetah Chrome. "There's the band on stage and Rupert Grint is wearing an early '60s vintage Fender Telecaster. I completely flipped out," Rosenberger says. He halted the action until the '61 Gibson SG modeled after Chrome's actual instrument of choice could be found. "I said to Randy, that right there would cook our goose," Rosenberger. "Non-intention to those details will kill us."

In all, CBGB offers an entertaining look back to those familiar with the scene and will serve as a engaging history lesson for who those who missed it. And that's what Miller, Saven, and Rosenberger were trying to accomplish.

"The underlying story was [Kristal was] this guy who was a lover of the arts," Miller says. "It wasn't necessarily the music that he loved, but he realized this was music that had a place and these kids had something to say and he should support it."

With GBGB the movie, the filmmakers are in a sense continuing Kristal's dream of supporting that scene and those bands. GBGB closed in 2006 over a rent dispute and Kristal died a year later from complications of lung cancer, but not before getting the ultimate props from Talking Heads, who not only name-dropped him several times in their 2002 induction speech at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but invited him on stage. Actual footage from that event closes the film.

While getting a glimpse into the early days of the Talking Heads, the Ramones, and Blondie are definite draws, Rosenberger hopes the film will also generate newfound interest in some of the bands from CBGB that never found huge commercial success, such as Television and Wayne County (now Jayne County) & the Electric Chairs. Television "is a band that made really creative interesting music, that I wouldn't describe as punk, but they were part of the scene," he says. As for County, he admits he once thought of the band as nothing more as a novelty act, but adds, "I found this track, 'Out of Control,' that still sounds fresh and it's not at all what you would think some novelty he-she act would put out."

While the film was previewed as a pay-per-view offering on DirecTV and will eventually turn up on DVD and Blu-Ray, Miller is hopeful that real music lovers will go see it in the theater so they can immerse themselves in the big-screen experience. "And if it's not loud enough," he says. "Tell the theater owner to crank it up!"

The story of the New York City punk-rock haven premieres at Sunshine Cinema in New York on Oct. 8, and will be shown at the CBGB Music & Film Festival in from Oct. 9 through Oct. 13., before it opens in New York, Los Angeles, and other select cities on Oct. 11.

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