Mandy Stein’s captivating feature documentary covers the rise and fall of the infamous music club CBGB and the founder, country guitarist Hilly Kristal. It opened December 1973 in the heart of New York City’s Bowery on the lower east side, which, at that time, was a seamy neighborhood of flophouses, drug addicts and prostitutes. The front-door awning carried the initials CBGB with a smaller OMFUG underneath. This stood for Country Blue Grass Blues and Other Music for Uplifting Gormandizers (ravenous eaters of music).
Kristal soon changed the music program to include local rock acts as they were more plentiful than country blues groups. Eventually acts like the Ramones, Talking Heads (whose song “Burning Down the House” gave the film its title), Patti Smith and others worked out their material onstage to small audiences at CBGB. This work would later be known as punk and new wave. Sadly, Hilly Kristal’s health began to fade. An epic battle ensued with his landlord, the non-profit Home Residence Organization, whose owner Muzzi Rosenblatt wanted the club out no matter the cost.
Serious moves were made to relocate the club to Las Vegas, an appropriate place for the free-for-all the performances had become. Although the club made no money, expenses would be “covered” with the CBGB clothing franchise. However, Kristal became very sick, could not complete the deal, and lost a court appeal for hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent.
Famed guitarist Steve van Zandt (Tony Soprano’s second in command, Silvio Dante in a bandanna?) seemed to idolize Hilly, as did other famous musicians and media artists interviewed, but they seemed helpless to save the club. The 2006 footage shows a great closing party; one year later Hilly died of lung cancer.
Background information: Director Mandy Stein’s mother, Linda Stein, was the manager of the Ramones and appears in the archival film footage. Later she became New York's real estate broker to the stars dealing with celebrity elite such as Elton John and Angelina Jolie. In 2007 Linda Stein was gruesomely murdered by her former personal assistant, who initially admitted to the crime saying Stein, “just kept yelling at her.” She later rescinded her plea in court. The assistant’s family tried to implicate Mandy Stein in the killing since Mandy and her sister had discovered their mother’s body in her apartment on 78th St and Fifth Avenue. This film is dedicated “to Linda.”