Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB

Despite a strong sense of the oxymoronic, doc has a lot of great music and spirit.

Despite a strong sense of the oxymoronic — how can you argue for preserving a place that represented spontaneity, revolution and change? — “Burning Down the House” has a lot of great music and spirit. Mandy Stein’s docu is an entertaining flashback to the Manhattan phenomenon known as CBGB, the incubator of ’70s punk and New Wave, a hellhole of filth and broken toilets, and as much a fixture of the Bowery as alcoholism. Festival success seems assured, as does some kind of arthouse run and broadcast.

Like most good stories, “Burning Down the House” (from the song by Talking Heads, one of the many acts CBGB gave New York) has a good guy and a bad guy. (Or, if you count real-estate developers, bad guys.) The good guy is Hilly Kristal, onetime folk singer and, for well over three decades, the owner of the resilient CBGB, which stood for “country, bluegrass, blues.” (The club’s subtitle, OMFUG, signified “other music for uplifting gourmands”). The problem was that Kristal didn’t own the building and got in a rent dispute with the landlord, the Bowery Residence Committee and its intractable head, Muzzy Rosenblatt (who declined to speak to helmer Stein). Thus began the death knell for a New York landmark.

But was it a landmark? The battle for official historic recognition of a place renowned for its despicable aesthetics is one of the pic’s more entertaining aspects, as is a plotline about keeping a place alive that had already survived heavy metal and Rudy Giuliani. Stein — whose father, Seymour, owned Sire Records and whose mother, Linda, managed the Ramones — has a nice sense of the ironic, juxtaposing the old Bowery with the new (seeing the facade of the yuppified Bowery Wine Co. elicits a laugh).

But perhaps the director’s best gesture is her recurring use of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and author Luc Sante (“Low Life”), who explore the gutted but still graffiti-tattooed innards of the old club like spelunkers looking for guano deposits. They examine the walls for names, dates and maybe any musical residue that might still be hanging in the damaged plaster. It’s a wonderful device that foreshadows what’s going to happen, despite the outcry, the campaigns and the outrage.

The history of New York is about change, and forsaking the past: Architect Stanford White’s masterpiece, the Madison Square Presbyterian Church, was built in 1906 and torn down in 1916. CBGB lasted three times as long and, thanks to Stein, lives on in a fashion.

Production values are adequate, much of the archival footage probably having been shot by the deluded and intoxicated.

Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB

  • Production: A Plain Jane Prods. presentation of an Ellsworth production, in association with Cactus Three. (International sales: Cactus Three, New York.) Produced by Mandy Stein, Ernie Fritz. Executive producers, Julie Goldman, Krysanne Katsoolis, Caroline Stevens. Directed by Mandy Stein.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W, HD, DV), Benjamen Logan; editor, Melody London; music supervisor, Jesse Malin; sound, Bob Bryan, Teferra McKenzie, Mark Maloof. Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (Discovery), April 25, 2009. Running time: 90 MIN. With Hilly Kristal, Deborah Harry, Patti Smith, Sting, Richard Hell, Steve Van Zandt.
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