In 2012 the famous New York CBGB & OMFUG rock club will be reborn in two very different arenas, and will have its past honored and its future set into motion as the months unfold. In venues all across New York, the CBGB name will rise again as a SXSW-style music festival showcases nearly 300 rock bands, old and new, all across the city. The result of a licensing sale and the vision of the new owners of the CBGB estate, the festival will run in July… about the time the rock club will be resurrected far away from New York, in the quiet, historical city of Savannah, GA.
At first glance the riverside city of Savannah, with its plentiful monuments for the earliest of American wars both Civil and Revolutionary, would seem quite the polar opposite of the 70s-era, punk rock surroundings of CBGBs. To assume so would be to discount the subtle influence a flourishing music scene and the massive art school inhabiting Savannah have had, but more importantly we’re talking about a town increasingly home to the film industry, which means it’s a town that can be all things to all people willing to come, build them, and shoot on them. Meddin Studios, the facility that will house the majority of production on CBGB, has had a particularly strong affect on the town’s ability to handle Hollywood style filmmaking.
So it is in Savannah that CBGB will literally be rebuilt from the ground up- not to host the next cutting-edge rock band, but to catalogue the cutting-edge rock bands that lit up the stage decades ago… Blondie, Sonic Youth, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, The Shirts, The Dictators, Iggy Pop, The Cramps, The Police, The Dead Boys, and, most famously, The Ramones.
The recreation will be the set for director Randall Miller’s CBGB which, with a screenplay penned by Jody Savin and Miller himself, will attempt to capture the story of the famous club, the bands it harbored, and the genre of musc it launched. To do so, it will more specifically tell the story of one man… Hilly Kristal.
Set to be played by Alan Rickman, the man with most delightfully droning voice in the movies, Kristal’s story revolves around his efforts to build a club where musicians could flourish, Top 40 hits and cover songs would never be heard, and the sounds coming from the stage would be the freshest in the world (even if the air and the bathrooms weren’t).
While the man had a storied history that included a stint in the Marines and a musical education that began when he was a small child, the film will likely focus on the flash-in-the-pan few years in the early 70s when Kristal managed to curate the most dense collection of up-and-coming punk rockers that would ever play under one roof, and all before the term “punk rock” even meant anything.
Obviously some musicians with big personalities will figure into Kristal’s story, and it’s here that the film will be a playground of cameos. Word is that actors and rockstars alike are tripping over themselves to nab roles as famous rock pioneers, and I can say with certainty that some big names are right on the edge of being announced. Already we know Rupert Grint (another Harry Potter alumni, along with Rickman) will play Cheetah Chrome, who served as a guitarist for The Dead Boys at the beginning of his own long career in punk and rock music. Malin Ackerman (Watchmen) will play Deborah Harry, frontwoman of Blondie, while Julian Acosta takes his turn as Johnny Ramone. Even icons like Lou Reed will be buzzing around in a film about place that attracted musicians who wanted to watch as well as play. Many more names are surely on their way.
One hopes this won’t just be a parade of cameos or a Rock Of Ages-style celebration of a period aesthetic though, as there’s a genuine story to tell with more than enough drama and bad behavior to give it some teeth. In a way the film could be like a superhero origin story, if the club itself were the hero and its superpowers were that of cacophonic rock and “fuck you” stage performance. As musician and CBGB patron Richard Hell described in a NY Times obituary for the venue, CBGB was “like a big playhouse, site of conspiracies, orgies, delirium, refuge, boredom, meanness, jealousy, kindness, but most of all youth. Things felt and done the first time are more vivid. CBGB’s is where many things were felt with that vividness.”
Like the punk genre itself, there is tragedy written into the club that incubated it. After years of struggling with landlords over rent increases and code violations, the club closed its doors in 2006. A year later, Kristal died before he could follow through with his vision of re-opening the club as a museum and performance space in Las Vegas. It was with this in mind he had the club stripped down and each counter-top, chair, and urinal catalogued and put into storage. Perhaps those pieces will one day be reassembled and the club will live again, but until that day, it will be up to a group of filmmakers to capture the CBGB spirit, such as it was.
Director Randall Miller is best known for his film Bottle Shock, which starred Chris Pine and Alan Rickman in a 70s story about the entry of California into the worldwide wine palette. It’s a charming period film, but here Miller is tackling some serious shit. There’s no more famous rock club in all of the world than CBGB, and the grimy, nasty walls of that joint and the people who filled them mean something to the legacy of America’s musical landscape. I’m interested to see what’s done with the rich, grungy backdrop in which Hilly Kristal forged something simultaneously innocent and debauched- a kind of place that will likely never be recreated in a culture where people show up to concerts to point cellphone cameras at the stage, and who never let a unique moment pass without uploading it to Instagram.
We’ve lost something very fundamental to the careless and energetic attitude that drove CBGB, and I hope the film captures some small portion of that. CBGB continue to mean something more to people than just a B&W logo that means “rock.” My fingers are crossed that we get as disgustingly beautiful a film as any punk fan could ask for, that I’ll get just the tiniest idea of what is was like to be there at that most excellent time. As someone who has lived in an auto-tuned world since he was old enough to pay attention to music, that sounds very special.
Thanks for reading.