Burning Down the House Review

CBGB’s was a venue that opened in 1973, founded and run, until it’s eventual close, by Hilly Krystal. Although the famous initials stood for Country Bluegrass and Blues, Hilly’s personal musical passion, it was punk that would find its home at CBGB’s, with many influential groups finding a haven there, including The Ramones, Patti Smith, Suicide, Television, Blondie, The Cramps, Talking Heads and The Voidoids. In its later years it would see a change in music, becoming home to another music scene, American Hardcore with key bands playing CBGB’s such as Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Agnostic Front and Murphy’s Law.

There are other genres that played a part at CBGB’s that do get a mention in this documentary, including artists such as James Chance and Sonic Youth, but it is the 70s punk and later Hardcore scenes that Mandy Stein focuses on in an attempt to make the, admittedly justified, claim of CBGB’s as a defining landmark in New York’s musical history and indeed American music as a whole.

What follows though is unfortunately something of a hagiography. Although enjoyable to anyone who is a fan of the music that CBGB’s helped foster, too often does Burning Down the House just simply reiterate well-known anecdotes and reverentially talk of the gigs that helped found the reputation of CBGB’s. The venue clearly was a landmark and one that should have received this recognition and not had the difficulties it had in the final days, but one cannot ignore the dilution of the music that came out of CBGB’s. Also, what could have been worse for the punk ethos so often made clear in CBGB’s than Hilly’s terrible idea of relocating to Vegas.

Perhaps Mandy Stein was too close to the material to make this documentary. The daughter of Seymour Stein and Linda Stein (Linda tragically murdered during the filming), both key figures in punk’s history, Mandy had access to all the people needed to make this documentary but I can’t help but feel she was unable to cast a negative eye on the venue’s later days. In the final scenes of the documentary parts of CBGB’s, including the telephone box and mixing board, are inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and although this seems justified given the importance to music that the venue represented, it does seem counter to the punk movement central to CBGB’s, which was never about celebrating the past and worshipping heroes.

Central to the story is Hilly, who sadly died in 2007 shortly after the club closed, and the film follows his struggle to keep CBGB’s open in spite of the efforts by Muzzy Rosenblatt, who headed the Bowery Residents Committee and made it increasingly difficult for Hilly and CBGB’s. The documentary uses the struggle between Muzzy and Hilly as a central narrative but unfortunately this cheapens the story somewhat and feels a little like lazy.

Another issue with the film is the quality of the documentary from a technical point of view. Although one could dismiss this as part of a ‘punk aesthetic’ this would be an easy out and one that the documentary should not be given. Many of the technical issues appear to just be sloppy filmmaking. The interviews, which I assume are the main new material, are clearly shot on a variety equipment and in different aspect ratios with some of the worst sound recording I’ve ever heard in a theatrically released documentary. At times, for instance, the sound moves between left and right channels for no apparent reason. There is a possibility that this was a result of the theatre I saw the film in but I think this was highly unlikely. The archival footage is obviously of very bad quality and often lacking sound (studio recordings are overdubbed in some cases) but this is understandable and something that is expected, given the unavailability of material. The technical issues on show in the newly filmed documentary footage is a different matter entirely.

The documentary does have some high points though and is still an enjoyable 90 minutes, exploring one of the most important venues in music’s history. Particularly fantastic moments include segments that the film cuts to in which director Jim Jarmusch and writer Luc Sante explore the wreckage of CBGB’s as it is torn down, appearing like archaeologists on a dig, uncovering guitar picks, scrawled notes and a lot of dirt. Another highlight is Patti Smith’s final performance, which is incredibly moving, including a wonderful rendition of Gloria, with added lyrics related to CBGB’s. But this is perhaps the only closing performance that stands out. Sadly too many of the bands that played CBGB’s have lost the edge that they once had, many of the Hardcore bands just come across as a bit silly now, Bad Brains sound dreadful in their performance here and in my opinion watching Blondie now is just embarrassing.

CBGB’s was an incredibly important venue and one that helped foster the talents of new bands and provided a place for like-minded musicians to feed off each other and create new sounds. This has been touched on by excellent documentaries such as End of the Century and Kill Your Idols, both of which I would recommend above Burning Down the House, and it is this real discussion of the music that seems lacking in this film. Despite the pronouncement in the film that CBGB’s went out with a bang, the film does not leave me with this impression.

The film ends with a montage of shots of Starbucks establishments to the song New York New York and although amusing, like a lot of the film, it also felt a little lazy, obvious and left me extremely underwhelmed.