Run time: 101 min
Rating: 6.4
Genres: Drama | Music
Director: Randall Miller
Writers: Jody Savin, Randall Miller
Stars: Alan Rickman, Malin Akerman, Justin Bartha
CBGB follows the story of Hilly Kristal’s New York club from its conceit as a venue for Country, Bluegrass and Blues (CBGB) to what it ultimately became: the birthplace of underground rock ‘n roll and punk. When Kristal had difficulty booking country bands in his club on the Bowery he opened his doors to other kinds of rock music. Kristal had one demand of the acts he booked; they could only play original music. No top 40’s, no covers. It was the credo he lived by, support the artist at whatever the cost. Hilly Kristal ironically became known as the godfather of punk giving a chance to such bands as Blondie, Television, Ramones, Talking Heads, Dead Boys and The Police. Written by anonymous
Country: USA
Release Date: 11 October 2013 (USA)
Box Office
Budget: $5,000,000 (estimated)
Opening Weekend: $4,000 (USA) (4 October 2013)
Gross: $40,400 (USA) (18 October 2013)


  1. The following review focuses on the portrayal of Hilly Kristal and CBGB. I will leave criticism of the aesthetics of the film and the film makers' skills to others with a less personal connection to the material.

    I knew they were going to get things wrong and I also knew they were going to have to change and compress some things in order to tell a coherent story in under two hours.

    There's a lot they got right and a lot they got wrong and there's a lot of good and bad in this movie.

    One thing I have mixed feelings about was the decision for artistic sake to use a lot of actual pieces of the original club as props. Since this movie is set in the early to mid-1970's, highlighting the beginning of CBGB and its early notoriety, many people who know anything about underground music will find a number of things out of place. For example, it's cool that they used the actual phone booth from the club as a prop in the film, but when Alan Rickman as Hilly in 1974 is seen standing next to it with a visible 1993 CBGB twentieth anniversary poster on the side, it can be distracting. There are tons of stickers and flyers for bands from later years visible throughout the movie and if you know your music, it can be a little distracting.

    It was also evident that someone involved in the set design of this film was a big fan of late 80's straight-edge as there are a disproportionate number of Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits stickers all over the interior.

    Most of the big name bands of the 70's CBGB scene are represented here. Some notable bands missing, but this is a movie and we can't expect them to fit everyone. If you blink, you'll miss the two seconds an actress playing Annie Golden of The Shirts is on screen. The music is all lip synced studio recordings of the original artists… which is good because who wants to hear the actors doing covers?… and bad because every live performance sounds too perfect. Most bands are given very little screen time as it is obvious the film makers are trying very hard to fit as many in as possible, but each one is well represented and there are little true to life touches, such as Johnny Ramone's temper and Patti Smith's eccentricities, that are actually pretty humorous.

    Good… The Dead Boys are featured heavily in this film (more than any other band) and a lot of people who never heard of them before seeing this film are going to be turned on to them. Rupert Grint actually does a great job as Cheetah Chrome. The closest thing to a plot this film has, aside from Hilly opening the club, is Hilly's decision to manage the Dead Boys and get a record out. The film loosely follows this effort right up to the stabbing of Johnny Blitz.

    Bad… (SPOILER!!) After the stabbing of Johnny Blitz, the film ends quickly after Lisa and Merv come up with some money for Hilly. This is completely anticlimactic and unnecessary. Since the film chose to close shortly after the stabbing, they missed the opportunity to end the film big, with the infamous Johnny Blitz benefits at CBGB.

    Good… Not only is John Holmstrom's story told here in the origin of Punk magazine, but his actual art is used throughout the film in various scene changes. Holmstrom is a good guy and deserves to have his story told and I'm glad his art is getting exposure in this film.

    Bad… Savannah Georgia does not look like NYC. Okay, that's just a quibble. I know it's a movie, but I just had to throw that in.

    Good… A few people I don't like were left out of this story and they're probably very upset.

    Bad… Unfortunately, because of the legal dispute over Hilly's estate, his ex-wife Karen and his son Dana, both of whom were there at the very beginning of CBGB are left out of this story. Hilly's daughter Lisa is the only family member shown working at the club with him.

    Good… Hilly's chili, dog waste everywhere, carnality on stage, Hilly leaving money in his freezer, and countless other little details that brought memories flooding back.

    Bad… not bad for the movie, but the scene where Hilly is chided for forgetting to pay the rent will, unfortunately, only reinforce the incorrect assumption that many still have to this day that CBGB closed because of unpaid rent. Allow me to step away from my review for a moment. For the record, that is not why we closed. Though the landlord did improperly sue us over unpaid rent, it was just a dirty tactic to get us out. The rent was always paid. The judge not only threw the lawsuit out, but reprimanded the landlord for being so underhanded. Our lease expired and the landlord did not renew.

    Back to the movie… The best thing about this movie and what made me actually really like it was the way Hilly was portrayed. Not only did Alan Rickman do a great job of capturing Hilly's mannerism and personality… for all the faults those of us who nitpick will find in this film, at its heart it is a sweet tribute to a great man. Hilly could be difficult to understand (figuratively and literally) and could have completely irrational emotional responses to some things for no reason and no response to things that warranted reaction, but his heart was always in the right place and he made CBGB a home for so many of us and his employees were often an extension of his family. For everything this film got right and everything this film got wrong, this was the most important thing and they got it perfectly right.

  2. As someone who was "there" but as an outsider (14-year-old kid from NJ who idolized Punk magazine and especially the Ramones), I loved this film. Yes, I recognize a number of liberties were taken with the truth, but this film allowed me to relive the thrill I used to experience going to CBGB's (as we called it) back in the day (I started going around 1976 or so). Even more than that, it's great to get a glimpse of how CBGB's came to be.

    More than that, the film works great as a film in and of itself — the directing, pacing, acting and cinematography are all first rate, with nary a dull or dead spot throughout (until the end, but I'll get to that). I'm not generally one for tricks like the use of Holmstrom's art to frame the story, but since it's Punk magazine we're talking about, it makes perfect sense for this film.

    The film just sails along — I suppose partly because it's so much fun to see the various bands, and how much fun the actors had portraying the band members' quirks (the Joey Ramone character is spot on… ). In fact, I would have liked it if the film had been extended to include more of the early groups (they left out Suicide, who were everywhere back then) and more of the live performances. I'm a little torn by the decision to have them lip sync to album material — on the one hand, it's the music we remember, on the other hand, most of the bands have live material available, even recorded at CBGB's, why not use some of that?

    However, by the end… the film runs out of steam a bit. I think that comes partly from the decision to focus a bit too much on the Dead Boys storyline, knowing how doomed that band was, and how entirely outclassed they were by most of the other bands featured (Television, Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie). Fortunately, the film only sags in the last 15 minutes or so, and it's still not enough to spoil a fine film dealing with a very important part of American — and world — music history.

    For me, personally, this period shaped my entire life, certainly from an aesthetic point of view.

    And great news! There's now a Best of Punk Magazine book available! (I still have my original copies around somewhere, but I can't wait to show this book to my kids!)

  3. I'm a female guitarist, bassist and songwriter who immersed myself in CBGBs and the original New York punk scene, who played at the club from the end of the 70s until months before its closing. I'm also a narrative filmmaker and believe I can fairly and objectively state the skinny here, and am copying over an edited, revised review from my website to fit in this rectangle:

    Many of the musicians and club-goers who survived the New York punk era are a bit resentful they weren't included in the making of CBGB, a film about the quintessential punk club CBGB Omfug, but 50,000 bands (I quote this number from the film) passed through its portals since its founder, Hilly Kristal, opened its doors on Manhattan's flophouse-flavored Bowery. And, though the CBGB movie is flawed, it is still a lovely tribute to Hilly.

    The brilliant actor Alan Rickman uncannily captures aspects of Hilly's personality and his dedication to all who passed through his "school of rock." This performance couldn't have been better. Director Randall Miller and Jody Savin have written a quirky script with heart, which includes some clever one-liners, and director Miller's work shines in scenes between Hilly and his co-workers. The sound mix––music often has dialogue interspersed––is excellent.

    What you won't get in this film is the essence of punk attitude. Rather, the film documents the struggles Hilly Kristal went through to provide a platform for new music. And in that context, this film succeeds.

    It is, however, frustrating that there is a huge miss in the portrayal of the punk scene without its high decibel deadpan, often self-deprecating humor that underlies its aesthetic. For example, though they achieve one such moment with Hilly's mother and Joey Ramone discussing a bowl of chili, elsewhere the script ignores the Ramones were inherently funny dudes from Queens, though the actors achieve a verisimilitude in appearance. (They do peg Johnny Ramone's tendency to tantrum.) Ergo, there is a lack of credibility in the portrayal of Debbie Harry of Blondie without her teasing tongue-in-cheek attitude; and in the portrayal of Stiv Bators, lead singer of the Dead Boys. Rupert Grint succeeds in affecting a stoner rock and roller in his role (a fun change for his fans from his goody-goody Ron Weasley days), but is not coming across with the love-of-the-instrument joy of the young, Dead Boys' guitarist Cheetah Chrome, though they do share the red hair. Kyle Gallner as Lou Reed is not in the ballpark at all. Ashley Greene, playing Hilly's daughter, Lisa, comes nowhere close to the stoic teenager who worked for her father and later attended law school (Hilly's CBGBs co-owner ex-wife and son are not portrayed in the film). It seems more care could have been taken with adhering to truth with these talented young actors who otherwise turn in acceptable acting performances.

    As well, the ekphrasic device of movie turned into comic book, special effects popping in and out, while a clever nod to Punk Magazine, becomes distracting. It would likely have worked with a more restrained editing hand.

    On the other hand, Mickey Sumner, Sting's real-life, extraordinarily talented actress daughter, sublimely metamorphoses into Patti Smith. In a brief, heart pounding stage performance, she exudes the true essence of punk; this offers a glimpse, alas, of the promise of what this film's portrayal of the punk scene could have been. A standout is Taylor Hawkins as Iggy Pop. And Freddy Rodriguez nearly steals the film with his riveting performance as the drug addict, Idaho.

    I adore they include the story of a biker gang leader famously agreeing to keep his group out of the club: This alludes to a real event that happened with the Hell's Angels. They were often protective of neighborhood denizens despite their tendency to start a ruckus or frighten patrons of CBGBs with their presence. As well, the story of Hilly's early life is worked into the story in a charming way.

    When Genya Ravan, one of the first women of rock, berates the Dead Boys about the swastika stickers on their instrument cases as their manager, Hilly, is Jewish, it isn't mentioned that Genya herself was a survivor of the Holocaust. Cowed, the Dead Boys remove them. However, while this scene awkwardly makes the point that punks were not Nazis, creepy symbols were brandished as part of the punk aesthetic. Anything that would annoy was the point, and this extended to personal adornment, attitude, song lyrics, music, all a backlash to the wholesome Brady Bunch, height-of-disco world most of the punks came from and that still existed everywhere but in the the thimbleful of punk clubs, its daytime hub around St. Mark's Place in the East Village; in its beginnings, punk was a small, insular world.

    It is a disappointment that certain seminal punk bands are not mentioned, like the New York Dolls or the Stilettos. To know what these bands were really like one will still have to go to Youtube, or look at films made during the punk era like Blank Generation, which stars Richard Hell who played with the Heartbreakers and his own band, the Voidoids.

    Beyond using the history of punk rock emerging as the backdrop of the film, it really is not a film about punk rock. Ultimately, CBGB is a character study of the unassuming Hilly Kristal who gave us a stage to work our songs. He gave advice. He gave encouragement. He made sure we got our splits at the door. He made us feel CBGBs was our home, that we were a familial extension of his own family.

    So do go see this film for Alan Rickman's performance. Do go see this film about an unassuming man whose efforts gave a platform to fresh new voices when no one else was doing so. Do go see this film about a quiet man who brought loud music to the world.

  4. Look, full disclosure: I didn't have any of the baggage of ever hearing of or being at CBGB. I lied to get into the preview: (I'm sixty one and the cutoff was 60). I didn't fancy myself a fan of punk. Didn't really even know what it was. I LOVED this movie start to finish. The story, the texture, the music all lifted me into a different world. The cuts between this punk magazine and this story amazed me as they worked. The music is a dream collection and the quirky story of the accidental birth of this genre of music made me smile end to end. That there is a Jewish back story to punk music, the Godfather of punk, the lunacy of swastika sporting musicians given their chance in life by a Yid, just made it the sweeter. If this movie makes it to your area ever (which it probably won't in Portland, Oregon), race to it and enjoy!

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