New York was a darker place in the 1970s, when President Ford essentially told the bankrupt city to “Drop dead,” and Martin Scorsese’s Travis Bickle rhapsodized about “a real rain [that] will come and wash all this scum off the streets.” It was the perfect breeding ground for a generation of angry youth whose creative obsessions with rebellion and anarchy, both real and stylized, became legendary at a church of punk called CBGB. The club was a dive when it opened in 1973 and it was exactly the same when it finally closed in 2006. But for 30-some years, bands like Talking Heads, Blondie, the Ramones, and Patti Smith made their marks there and helped dynamite the face of music.
The man behind CBGB was an unlikely success story named Hilly Krystal, and in the new movie, CBGB, which tells the story of how the New York punk scene sprouted from the moldy club in the 1970s, Alan Rickman plays him as the least punk guy in the room. “He’s sort of a big quiet force,” says Rickman. “In the middle of all that noise, he’s a vital force so that everybody felt anchored while so much experimenting was going on. He was also interested in what they had to say, as he kept telling people, ‘They’ve got something to say; we should listen.’”
You don’t have to be a punk fan to appreciate Hilly’s story. In fact, Rickman, who dons a curly wig and checks his vanity at the door to play the role, wasn’t familiar with the man or his scene. “[Randall Miller and Jody Savin] said we want to do this film about CBGB. I said, ‘What’s that?’” he says. “I was a student in London in the ’70s, so CBGB really wasn’t on my radar at all. Obviously, I was aware of the emergence of the Police in England and as an art student, I was very aware of David Byrne, but I suppose my musical taste at that time certainly didn’t stretch towards the Dead Boys or the Ramones.”
One of the delights of the movie, directed by Miller (Bottle Shock), is seeing cinematic versions of the iconic bands take the stage, from Deborah Harry (Malin Akerman) to Joey Ramone (Joel David Moore) to Iggy Pop (Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins). (Fifty points to the onscreen Dead Boys who feature a Gryffindor guitarist — or at least one played by Rupert Grint!)
In the exclusive clip below, Hilly listens to a new band audition. It might be his first run-in with the police that he doesn’t regret.
CBGB gets its New York theatrical premiere tomorrow night at the CBGB Music and Film Festival.