End of the Century
Featuring the Ramones. Rating unavailable.
As a rock band, the Ramones exuded a strange combination of bluster and inaccessibility that helped entrench them as icons. So it took a leap of faith for first-time filmmakers Jim Fields and Michael Gramaglia to dig beneath their whatyoulookinat surface and find out what made them tick as people and, ya know, artists.
The saga of Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, and Tommy Ramone (aka Jeffrey Hyman, John Cummings, Douglas Colvin, and Thomas Erdelyi, respectively), began in the proletarian wasteland of Forest Hills, Queens, and pretty much ended in this century, with the proximate deaths of Joey and Dee Dee, its two most enigmatic members, and, most recently, Johnny.
In between, the band made some ear-battering music and influenced hundreds of other musicians--who probably all made more money than the Ramones. They also took a lifetime stand for the hard-ass, leather-jacketed, two-minute-song kind of rock 'n' roll that defined a raw '50s ethos soon obscured by politics and artifice. (Their seminal work now sounds closer in spirit to the Beach Boys than to influences like the Stooges or inheritors such as the Sex Pistols.)
As pointed out on camera by punk chronicler Legs McNeil, there was a lot of life crammed into the more than two decades of Ramones records. Along the gabba-gabba way, we learn that Joey, who would eventually die of lymphatic cancer, was a sickly child with OCD who would have drifted into anonymous geekdom if it weren't for the band. "How else would he have got the attention of girls?" asks Fields, who was also the band's manager. "Girls who weren't on medication."
The medicine of choice for Dee Dee, who aged into a fast-decaying Chet Baker/Keith Richards figure, was heroin, which put him at odds with perpetually pissed-off guitarist Johnny and taskmaster Tommy (who quit to stick to the studio--and, judging from his W. C. Fields proboscis, the bottle). But the central tug of the band was between Joey, far less assertive than we may have imagined, and Johnny, the bowl-cut, Bush-loving stalwart who stole Joey's girlfriend (cue "The KKK Took My Baby Away") and married her, setting off a feud that lasted 17 years.
In the smartly edited film's emotional finish, Johnny wonders if his unresolved feelings for Joey aren't a sign of weakness, and the relentlessly macho guitarist has to check in with his wife to recall how things went down. The codirectors are also a bit vague on chronology and musical influences. (Why, for example, is there nothing on the Ramones' fascination with the film Freaks?) Most of the action seems to be concentrated in the band's heyday of the late '70s, when, as the late Joe Strummer put it, "You couldn't put a cigarette paper between where one song ended and another one began." 1-2-3-4!
There are later exhilarations, as where the boys are mobbed by impoverished Brazilian teenagers who could relate, man. But a slow decline, with various surrogates stepping in, is always agonizing to watch--especially when there's involvement from producer Phil Spector, a nut ball so out there he could even scare the Ramones. On the other hand, unlike Johnny, we don't have to blame ourselves for caring about these strangely triumphant losers. They were always doomed, but they were never sedate.